The annual British Academy book prize rewards "works of nonfiction that have contributed to public understanding of world cultures and their interaction." Human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, one of the prize's judges, talks us through the books that made the 2022 shortlist and explains what makes them so compelling.
Before we get to the individual books, can you tell me what type of book you’re looking for? It has to be a work of nonfiction, but what other criteria are there for shortlisting books for the British Academy Book Prize?
We have our marching orders: it’s the best works of nonfiction that have contributed to public understanding of world cultures and their interaction. That’s the broad frame of reference. What are the best works of nonfiction? My own trajectory has changed in the last few years. I have an academic background—I’m at UCL—and I hugely value books that are pure works of scholarship that may only sell nine copies. Many of my books have only sold a few copies; that’s not why we do it. But scholarship, of course, is not the sole criteria. Increasingly, for me, what is important is that the book should be written in a way that it can reach a broader audience, that turns on the nature of the subject matter and the quality of the writing.
One of the things that has really impressed me, in the past few years—particularly since East West Street came out—is understanding that there is a huge readership out there that is highly intelligent and capable of dealing with matters of academic, professional, technical and scientific complexity, provided the material is put across in a way that is reasonably accessible. And so, I must say, I have a personal bent towards the quality of the narrative, the telling of the material.
So it’s a mix of things. Is the subject matter interesting? Is it written in an interesting way? Is it accessible? Those are the kinds of factors that I’m interested in. But the judges are all very different characters. This is the second year we’ve done it and it’s a wonderful group.
With so many nonfiction books published, I’m just appreciative that there is a group of people picking out the good ones systematically.
We’re fairly systematic. We get hundreds of books and we whittle it down to 30 that we think broadly meet the criteria. Academics famously say that for a student’s essay, the rule is that the opening paragraph will give everything away as to how good or not it is. It’s not quite the same with a book. A book written by someone who’s become a dear friend, Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes, only takes off at about page 70. With books, you do have to carry on. You can’t fully digest 30 books, but you can get a sense of each. Then, for the final six, it’s a deep dive.
Let’s turn to those final six that made the shortlist. I’ll take them in alphabetical order. First up is a biography of Andrew Graham Bell, The Invention of Miracles, but it’s not focusing on his invention of telephony. Can you tell us a bit about this book and why it’s worth reading?
I learned a lot about Alexander Graham Bell from this book because in my mind he was very much associated with the invention of the telephone. I was in Canada a few years ago and found myself in the town where the cable had arrived, and the first transatlantic call was made. It was all quite exciting, but I didn’t know about his relationship to deafness. He was surrounded by people who were deaf: his mother, his wife. It’s a very powerful story of how he went about technologically, politically and personally to enable people who were deaf to communicate through the use of this new contraption.
As you’re reading this book, you’re applying the values of the 2020s to events that were no doubt wholly noble when they were being carried out, but with the benefit of hindsight, don’t look quite so great. That’s one of the aspects of the book that I found completely fascinating.
I gather he doesn’t come out looking like a hero.
He doesn’t come out looking like a hero by the values of our society today. I think that is one of the themes that cuts across all these books, whether it’s time, or place, or subject matter: what values do you take to look through the lens at a particular person’s activities? It’s very easy, with the benefit of where I sit today, to adopt a rather critical eye of what he was up to, and yet, we have to put ourselves back to those times and try to understand the context in which he was trying to help people, no doubt with the best of intentions. I found that very, very interesting. But you’re absolutely right, he doesn’t come out of it looking like a gold-embossed hero. That story is really well told. It’s a wonderfully written book.
Let’s go on to Aftermath, which is about postwar Germany and I’ve heard a number of people rave about. Tell me a bit about it and why you like it.
I had come across this book before because it deals with a moment in time and place that I’m very interested in, which is 1945 Europe and Germany. It takes a perspective that I think has not been widely focused on, which is different aspects of everyday life in Germany in the immediate period after the war. For me, personally, it was a very eye-opening account.
“These books are by writers who are at the top of their game”
I think it’s a spectacularly important book because it raises universal themes. We’ve been reading in our papers over the last few days and weeks what it means when war comes to an end, at least temporarily—permanently, I hope—in parts of Ukraine. In towns and small villages, the Russian occupier has been removed and a degree of normal business resumes. You begin to see the consequences in terms of getting hold of food, transportation, collaborators, culture, kids going back to school, all these issues. A lot of my work as a lawyer is dealing with horrendous international cases and it’s the same everywhere—Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Chile—what happens when a degree of normality returns. This book shows that in a powerful way. I found it very affecting.
Let’s go on to the next book on the list. This is Osebol: Voices from a Swedish Village. Glancing at it, it looks like a book of poetry.
It’s not! You have to read it very carefully. It deals with a tiny village in Sweden which has about 40 inhabitants left. The writer has basically interviewed all of them and, using those interviews, told the story of a particular place over time. So you get the minutiae of the life of a village, against the backdrop of the 20th and 21st century and changes that are taking place. It reads like poetry, but she’s simply taken the words of the local inhabitants and presented them in a different form. This book makes you work because it’s not immediately apparent what’s going on. Then you begin to work it out, who is speaking, when they’re speaking, what they’ve done in life, what their age is, what their role is.
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It’s a completely original insight into the life of a tiny place which, again, throws up universal themes. Once I got into it, it’s rather an exciting book to read, because it’s so original, but so resonant because it deals with our lives too. So much of it speaks to what anyone in any community goes through and observes: frustrations and anxieties and emotions and passions and loves and hates. It’s an amazing book.
It’s a village that many people have left. Is the socio-economic story an important aspect?
It wasn’t for me. I spend my life sitting in courtrooms listening to the minutiae of things, so I’m fascinated by those. I’m also fascinated by the act of telling them. What is so powerful about this book is that the manner of the telling of the stories is just so original, it’s so different from any other book I’ve come across. So yes, you’re in a single village in Sweden but that’s a lens into a bigger picture about the human condition.
Let’s go on to the next book on the shortlist, Horizons, which is arguing for a less Eurocentric history of science. I read the rather beautiful opening, about Emperor Moctezuma II of the Aztecs with his aviary and royal botanical gardens. What did you like about this book?
Again, it challenges our assumptions. I grew up in Britain and went to school in the 1970s and was told that science basically started with Isaac Newton. It’s really nice to read an account of scientific endeavor which tells you that across cultures and places, things were going on that gave insight into the world. For example, there’s the astronomer, Ulugh Beg, who five centuries ago calculated the length of the solar year to within 25 seconds of accuracy to what we’ve got today. That single episode encapsulates what this book is about. It encourages us to stop imagining that we are somehow at the center of the universe of progress and development and to recognize that there are other cultures out there who have been way ahead of the game and who we’ve learned from. We’re not very good at articulating or recognizing that, but this book does, across a range of places and times. That’s a really important exercise to engage in.
Again, the book is very accessible. Coming back to what I said earlier, I write in the field of law, trying to make that accessible. I really appreciate a scientist helping me to understand scientific developments in a way that absolutely resonates and unpeels the complexities of our world. It’s a very significant book.
On the theme of global cultural understanding, it’s pretty much spot-on.
I take a pretty broad view of understanding world cultures. There’s the macro, which this scientific book does, or there’s the micro which the Osebol or the Alexander Graham Bell books do. It’s about being able to look at the world in a different way, that’s the common theme.
Let’s move to a book set in Chile now, When Women Kill: Four Crimes Retold, by a novelist, Alia Trabucco Zerán. Tell me about this book.
This was the other book that I had come across before because I’m doing a lot of work on Chile right now. I’m writing a book on Pinochet, so I’ve been reading a lot of Chilean literature. Again, it is wholly original. It’s the unpicking of four rather mundane but awful stories of acts of killing involving women. It’s taking the events of many decades ago and reviewing them with reference to a new set of understandings and the values of today. This book has a particular gendered aspect that is incredibly significant in explaining to us the circumstances in which, in Chile, society came down like a ton of bricks on individual women who, for one reason or another, found themselves in a situation in which they were involved in an act of killing.
Once again, though, it’s universal. These stories felt pretty familiar to me, living in London, because these are the kinds of stories that would have taken place here. I suppose I was aware of these issues and what it’s like to be a woman in a particular society because I’d read a book many years ago by Helena Kennedy, Eve Was Framed. By revisiting these four stories, this book allows us to look at the values of those times and the values of our times and think long and hard about what has changed.
It’s also sublimely written. This is a real writer. There are people who write and there are writers, and this is a writer. I’d put Osebol in that category also. That’s not dispositive, but it really is exciting to be in the hands of someone who is a professional wordsmith. The craft is different. You are in the hands of an individual with different qualities. It’s not just a story to be told, but the manner of the telling.
I read the story of the first woman, who was unhappy with her unfaithful husband. Divorce and adultery weren’t options for her, so the only way she could be with her lover was if she was a widow.
Well, read the one about the maid who kills two of the children in her charge. It’s a really powerful book.
Let’s move on to the final book on the shortlist, Kingdom of Characters, which is all about getting the Chinese script ready for the modern world.
The joy of being a judge on this prize is you learn a lot. These books are by writers who are at the top of their game, really world-class thinkers. This book was fascinating. It was the first thing I’ve read that began to enable me to understand the art of Chinese writing. They don’t have an alphabet with twenty-something letters, but thousands of symbols or characters. She tells a rather gripping story. The book gets completely fascinating on how you transmit those characters in the age of, first, the typewriter, and then the digital age. How do you get these Chinese characters onto the internet?
At the heart of it are matters of power and authority and persuasion and propaganda and communication. Interestingly, it is a mark of leadership for a Chinese leader to have penmanship. If we saw Liz Truss’s handwriting, there’d just be a big yawn, but in China it’s a mark of a person’s qualities and capacities for leadership. It’s a riveting tale and an insight into Chinese culture, which I personally want more of as China takes a stronger place in the world. I want to understand what makes that community or communities tick.
She also focuses on the individuals, which is another theme connecting these books. The ones that really resonate for me are those which take not ideas, but individuals and the role they’ve played in taking things forward. She really does that. She doesn’t just tell you how it happened, she tells you who did it and their story.
So she takes it from the late-19th century right through to today?
Yes, right up to the present day. Technically it’s complex, how you take these characters and create a language which is capable of being transmitted and understood by other people. It’s a form of standardization, I suppose, but it’s really interesting.
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