Nonfiction Books

The Best Nonfiction Books: The 2021 Baillie Gifford Prize Shortlist

recommended by Kathryn Hughes

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe

Winner

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty
by Patrick Radden Keefe

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Every year the judges of the Baillie Gifford Prize pick out the very best nonfiction books, the shortlist they come up with a brilliant way to find gripping books to immerse yourself in. Here cultural historian Kathryn Hughes, one of this year's judges, talks us through the six books they chose for the 2021 shortlist, books that will draw you in, whatever the subject.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe

Winner

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty
by Patrick Radden Keefe

Read

As a judge, what were you were looking for in the nonfiction books you chose for your 2021 shortlist?

I think what we were looking for as judges is the sizzle, the excitement, the moment where you pick up a book, you read the first page and there’s something about it that just hooks you in. Now, that could be several things. It could be amazing, beautifully written prose that’s intriguing. It could be that it’s an extraordinary topic and you’ve been taken to a place that you’ve never thought about before. There is an indefinable, almost visceral, reaction you get in your body of, ‘I’m responding to this and I really want to go on’. Then of course, as you go through the book, other, slightly more considered points come to mind: is it sustaining the story? Is this beautiful prose style becoming a little bit cloying and overdone? Does it work over 400 pages? Reading is a process, there’s the immediate excitement and then the sense of how it works as a book.

I’m always really interested in what a book’s aftereffects are on me as well. I think that’s quite a good reference point. Am I still thinking about it, even if it’s, ‘what did she mean by this?’ or ‘I wasn’t sure when he said that.’ Something that means that it’s taken up residence in your internal life, that you want to know more about it. For me—and I think I can speak for the other judges—that’s what we’re looking for: something that just sticks with us and makes itself part of our lives.

It’s called the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction, so the books have to be nonfiction. Other than that, could they be about anything?

Nonfiction is a hugely broad church so it can be about anything—as long as it’s not made up. Within nonfiction, you’ve got all these other genres that we often think of as genres on their own—like biography, autobiography, narrative history, essays.

Some people will ask, ‘How do you know it’s not made up? If it’s a book where there are not pages and pages of reference notes, how do you know?’ I think there’s a relationship you have with the text, where it just has a truthiness quality to it. You just know, feel, sense, that you can trust the author, that you’re in good hands, that there’s no sleight of hand going on. The books we’ve got on our shortlist are immensely varied. Some are works of scholarly history, others are very lyrical and have very little obvious source material apart from the internal workings of the writer. But I think we’re pretty confident that they are all nonfiction books: these are not novels.

Let’s turn to the books on the shortlist of the 2021 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction individually. Why don’t we start with the history book, Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945-55 by the German journalist Harald Jähner? This was translated from German and I noticed that in German the title was Wolfszeit or ‘the time of wolves’.

It’s so interesting. I imagine it was called that not because there was a sudden influx of wolves into formerly occupied spaces—although there may well have been—but because of the sense of lawlessness. We think of Germany as a place of order and discipline, what Jähner reveals here is ten years of anarchy and very naked individualism. It’s about a period that tends not to get written about. The historiography usually goes to the end of the war, the suicide of Hitler, and then forward to about 1960 and the economic miracle. It’s just very exciting to be told about this period in between where it’s awful, just out of control. It gets to the point where a cardinal says that the seventh commandment, ‘Thou shalt not steal’, no longer applies.

Jähner paints this amazing picture of postwar Germany. I was always brought up to believe that it was a place of enormous collective guilt and soul-searching. What Jähner suggests is that, yes, there’s enormous unhappiness and pain and pity, but it’s the most extraordinary kind of self-pity. The Germans that he talks to and about—he amalgamates a lot of individual stories—think they’ve been badly done by. At one point an editor says, ‘I just get the feeling that the rest of Europe, the rest of the world, hates us. Why would that be?’ There’s an absolute lack of comprehension and it moves very quickly into being resentful about those Jews who survived because they appear to be getting better rations and preferential treatment. People say, ‘It was tough for them, but it was tough for us too!’ Just shocking statements. The Nuremberg Trials were just a bit of victory grandstanding, nothing to do with us. There’s a kind of Teflon coating to this, of just not taking responsibility at all.

“What we were looking for as judges is the sizzle, the excitement, the moment where you pick up a book…and there’s something about it that just hooks you in”

It’s a country completely in ruins, covered in rubble. All the cities have been laid waste and you have people crawling over the ruins. Women are employed as rubble collectors, going over these huge mounds, trying to sort something out, to put something together that looks like Germany.

Jähner also talks about the fact that the men coming back from the front are absolutely shattered, not just physically, there’s also a psychological weariness. A lot of them are impotent and their wives are not that thrilled to see them because it’s not very sexy to have a man coming back who has been on the losing side. There’s a sense of the women, who’ve been on the home front during the war, not wanting these emaciated, puling, weaklings back—they quite like the American soldiers, who look much healthier and have nice teeth, cigarettes, chocolate.

I just found this book such a revelation. It’s a beautiful work of history. Jähner is 68 now and was born in that postwar era. It must have been an incredibly difficult book to write.

It’s a history book: is it very long?

It is long, but it’s got this very strong human element. He just aggregates lots of individual stories, so it doesn’t feel long. You’re brought into the human stories pretty quickly. I have very little capacity to read about geopolitical history, but this book I just found fascinating.

Let’s go on to Empire of Pain, The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty. This is by an American journalist, Patrick Radden Keefe. Why did you choose this book for the shortlist of the 2021 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction?

It’s an extraordinary book. He’s writing of extraordinary things, but that alone won’t make it a good book. There’s incredible artistry in putting this story together. And because he has a very transparent style—he’s a New Yorker staff writer—and it’s not fancy, it’s very easy to say, ‘Well, he just had to research it and write it down.’ But no, it’s incredibly beautifully done.

It’s about the Sackler scandal, this family that’s made a fortune out of Oxycontin, this very, very addictive opioid that’s killed more Americans than have died in all the wars the country has fought since the Second World War. What he does is go back and look at the origins of the company, Purdue Pharma.

It’s a fascinating story. It’s an immigrant family, Russian Jewish. The father has a grocer’s shop. They work incredibly hard. Against all the odds the three boys, the first generation, all become doctors. It is the American dream. They’re doing something extraordinary and it’s admirable at the start.

They set up a company and are selling very unsexy products. It’s laxatives most of the time. But they have the idea that pharmaceuticals is about marketing. It’s about creating desire and demand, not just fulfilling it. They have a very successful 1970s because they do a lot of work with valium. Then along comes Oxycontin. It’s a story that reads like Succession—that drama series that’s very popular at the moment on HBO. It never becomes a public company, so there are boardroom squabbles, but it’s always family, which is what makes it so thrilling. It’s cousins and brothers not getting on, but getting on enough to decide that they’re going to produce this opioid they’ve stumbled across and they’re going to market the hell out of it.

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There’s also this very, very cozy culture whereby the FDA lets them market this highly, highly addictive and damaging opioid. Doctors become so entranced with it, that they set up pill mills on out-of-city-center car parks, where they sell the stuff off. It’s just the most extraordinary story of moral and physical corruption.

The book also raises the really interesting point that’s often made about gun control. People say, ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people.’ Can you say that about Oxycontin? Can you say, ‘Look, it’s a choice: you don’t have to put that thing in your mouth’. He deals with that very nicely.

So it’s a perfect blending of family history, dynastic shenanigans on a par with the Borgias, combined with a story that has just ruined so many people’s lives.

The point being, of course, that the Sacklers are known around the world for their philanthropic gestures. There’s barely a Western city (and some in China too) that doesn’t have a Sackler wing or museum or department or a Sackler this or a Sackler that. There are Sackler medical wings, art galleries, Sackler is everywhere.

Yes, I’ve seen their name on buildings for decades, they were major philanthropists well before the opioid crisis. I didn’t realize they’d made their money by marketing drugs, I just presumed it was inherited wealth/old money.

Yes, and Keefe goes into the forensics of how they wanted you to think that. Specifically, they’ve separated themselves from the company. It’s not called Sackler, it’s called Purdue Pharma. It’s deliberate whitewashing. It’s just amazing. Then you have to ask yourself, what do you do? Many people are not accepting their money anymore, but do you have to hand it back? It’s a really interesting moral problem.

Let’s move on to Islands of Abandonment, which has been shortlisted for a number of prizes this year and is really making waves. This is actually by our deputy editor, Cal Flyn, an Orkney-based journalist and writer. Tell me about it and why you consider it one of the best nonfiction books of 2021. 

I have to admit that because I work as a reviewer and a critic, I’m a little bit sick of nature writing. It’s just been so huge. I wasn’t thinking ‘Oh good, some nature writing!’ when I opened this book. Which just tells you how extraordinarily good the book is—because I was just blown away by it.

What makes it different is that while it’s certainly not a pollyannaish book—it’s not ‘don’t worry about the environment, it’s all going to be fine’—she does find a counter-narrative. She takes us to these desolate places where man has retreated, having apparently spoiled the place for good: Chernobyl, a World War One arsenic factory in France, Bikini Atoll. She goes to these eerie places, these unattractive places, these broken places, places that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, and finds that nature has seeded itself there and is doing interesting things.

She starts off with ‘bings’, which are these mountains of oil shale residue in Scotland. She tells the story of how some of these bings were saved by environmental people, who tried to make them look nice, planting them with special grasses. They haven’t done very well compared with the bings that were just left alone, which are now much, much more diverse and doing much better than the ones that were slightly landscaped to make them look pretty. The book is full of these counterintuitive moments that I just found fascinating. The takeaway message is that when we try and get involved—even when we try and make things better—we make things worse. There’s a sense in which nature is wiser.

Also, although it’s very beautiful writing, the lyricism is really kept under control, for which I’m eternally grateful. Nature writing can become so performative. This is very disciplined. Yes, she can write a beautiful sentence, but it is always in service of what she’s trying to tell us. I thought that was great.

Let’s go on to Things I Have Withheld. This is a collection of essays by the Jamaican-born poet Kei Miller. Tell me about this essay collection and why it’s one of the books that made the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction 2021 shortlist.

The essay form is having a moment right now, which is all to the good. I can imagine a few years ago, this book probably wouldn’t have been on the shortlist because somebody would have said, ‘It’s a book of essays, it doesn’t count.’ It’s interesting that the essay form has got this legitimacy now.

Kei Miller is a poet and a novelist. Here, for the first time, he’s writing in a nonfiction voice. He’s of Jamaican origin, he’s Black and queer. He is writing about his own experience, about speaking and not speaking. He’s constantly making the point that he often doesn’t have to speak in certain contexts because his body does it for him. He talks about going to a party or a shop in London and people automatically being slightly afraid because he’s big and he’s Black. It’s how people read him. His body says all sorts of things that he doesn’t authorize, they just happen.

He’s trying to talk about the difficult things. It’s a very knowing collection and he starts off with a letter to James Baldwin, the late African American gay writer. He’s measuring how much has changed between his time and ours, and the answer is not a great deal.

“I’m always really interested in what a book’s aftereffects are on me…I think that’s quite a good reference point”

Most of it is set in Jamaica. There’s one wonderful essay which is about a dinner party. There’s a Black person, a person of Indian heritage and a white woman. He goes into what they’re thinking, their interior lives, all things that can’t be said out loud. On the surface it’s this wonderfully liberal get-together of people, it’s all absolutely fine, but the internal voices are not okay. They’re the things that we daren’t say; that we don’t want to say. He’s interested in the subtext, what is not said and the things that can’t be said but are always being said.

Sometimes he does say things that I understand have got him into trouble. There’s one essay which is about white Jamaican women speaking for the Jamaican experience. He asks, ‘Can you do that? Who speaks for Jamaica?’

It’s an uncomfortable book to read. It’s one of those books that makes you feel slightly discomfited, but because he is such a beautiful writer, a poet, he does have this lyrical voice. That makes it extremely pleasurable as well, which in itself makes one feel a little bit anxious, getting pleasure from such an uncomfortable subject.

Let’s move on to Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell by John Preston. I found this one fascinating because I picked up the book thinking, ‘I really do not feel like reading anything about Robert Maxwell.’ But I couldn’t stop reading, I was just sucked in.

That was completely my experience as well. I thought, ‘Robert Maxwell: why? It’s sad, it’s unpleasant, it was a long time ago.’ And I think I can say all of us judges were just gripped. It was the absolute readability of the book. I think there’s been around a dozen Maxwell biographies—someone counted them all up—and it shows you can still get new things out of an old subject. It’s all about the skill of the writing. John Preston is an immensely experienced journalist, an immensely experienced nonfiction writer. He wrote the Jeremy Thorpe book, A Very English Scandal. He’s also a novelist. All those disciplines, I think, give him something. As a novelist, he knows a good character when he sees one—this amazing, larger-than-life, awful person. As a journalist, he knows you don’t make things up, you go to the sources. Amazingly, he’s managed to speak to three of the Maxwell children, as well as Maxwell’s surviving sister. I don’t think anyone has managed that before. He also gets an interview with Rupert Murdoch, which hasn’t been done before on the subject of Maxwell. Then, as a nonfiction writer, he has the ability to tell this extraordinary story about a man who is just making things up as he goes along, a man who makes himself to the moment, this self-created monster.

Maxwell was born into an impoverished Czechoslovakian Jewish family on the eve of Nazism. It was very traumatic; he lost his family in the Holocaust. Preston never skates over that, not at all, but looks at what Maxwell did with that. For a long time, for instance, he denied that he was Jewish. And yet, he ended up being buried on the Mount of Olives because he put so much money into Israel.

The book is a bit like the Sackler family book in that you wonder, ‘How did we let this happen?’ When Maxwell fell off his boat and died, Margaret Thatcher and George Bush Sr telephoned with condolences. Then, within 10 months, we realize that he’s a billion pounds in debt and has stolen £350 million from the Daily Mirror pensioners. What is the nature of charisma? How is he so charismatic and so awful? We all said, ‘Oh, yes, he’s a bit of buffoon, but you’ve got to love him really’. He’s in that great tradition of old English eccentrics, all the more interesting because he came from Czechoslovakia.

Also, because he fell off his boat, there’s always been a mystery about whether he jumped or fell or was pushed or assassinated. His boat was called the Lady Ghislaine, after his daughter. Now, of course, we’ve got the Ghislaine Maxwell trial coming up at the end of November. There’s a sense in which this story rumbles on and on because it’s clear that she had the most shocking upbringing. He was violent, he was disgusting. We have this extraordinary coda of his youngest and most adored daughter being involved in these very unsavoury things.

The book is also a bit of a trip down memory lane. As a journalist, I enjoyed reading about the newspaper industry in the Maxwell years, because it’s so different now.

Yes, it was extraordinary, the power of the unions to make a difference. The book does have wonderful nostalgia. There are great stories in it. I remember the Mirror used to have a ‘spot the ball’ competition. If you got it right, you got you could win a million pounds. But Maxwell rigged it all to make sure that nobody ever got more than £25!

Preston does a very good job of recalling that time, after Maxwell comes out of World War II. He’s got an eye for that postwar, the 60s, 70s, 80s milieu. We don’t yet have social media and there’s still an enormous space in which you can make yourself into whoever you want to be.

There’s a Carry On element to it as well. At that point, we still liked scoundrels and rotters and Maxwell stepped forward and took up that space. He called his house Maxwell House, which is so funny. Then, standing on top of it, he peed on passers-by walking down below. It’s shockingly uninhibited.

I think this book really is a model of what can be done with an old subject. It does something. It’s great.

Let’s turn to the last book on this year’s shortlist. This is Free: Coming of Age at the End of History by Lea Ypi. She’s a political theorist at LSE now, but she grew up in Albania and this is her memoir. Tell me about it and why it’s one of the best nonfiction books of 2021.  

I’m probably just speaking for myself here, but I’ve had it with memoir. We’ve had so many of them that the retreat to first person experience feels a bit old and tired to me. It served a purpose; it was very important, but I wasn’t queuing up to love this book. And I was just totally blown away by it. It’s extraordinary.

Again, it’s partly because it is such a fantastic story. Albania was one of the last redoubts of Stalinist communism. China had made modifications, even Russia had given up on it, and Albania just carried on. It was such a secret place. From the island of Corfu, you could look across to Albania. I remember seeing lorries and thinking, ‘Who’s driving that lorry? What are their lives like?’ It was an extraordinary place—slap bang in the middle of Europe.

Lea Ypi writes about being a very precocious, talented little girl who is determined to be the best Stalinist pioneer that you could possibly have: she does more cleaning, she collects more rubbish. She’s the perfect little communist. She thinks that her parents are a huge embarrassment. They’re backsliders, they’ve not got with the program, something has gone wrong. There’s also this other embarrassment, which is that the prime minister who handed over Albania to the Italian fascist government during the war happens to have the same surname as her. She has to keep on telling her classmates, ‘No, it’s nothing to do with us, it’s another Ypi’.

Her grandmother speaks to her in French. She always thinks, ‘That’s funny, why does Granny speak in French? Everybody else speaks Albanian.’ It’s her grandmother’s aristocratic heritage; she was educated all around the world.

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Gradually Lea Ypi learns that she has grown up in a family that is very out of favour. She’s very good at doing a child’s gradual dawning of what’s happening. By 1990, when things in Albania are becoming more liberal, her parents start to talk a bit more. And she suddenly realizes the whole story, the awfulness of what’s been going on. She comes from a family of dissidents and her parents have been highly critical of the regime. They are enemies of the regime and that is why they’ve been stuck doing dead-end jobs and why, despite their obvious intelligence and education, they’ve led a very difficult life. And that prime minister who shares her surname was, of course, her great grandfather.

What happens after December 1990 is that liberal capitalism turns out to be as awful as communism. There are Ponzi schemes, there is drug dealing and sex trafficking. Everybody’s telling them that they’re free, but it’s a very strange, horrible kind of freedom. Her father is put in charge of an Adriatic port and is tasked with sacking lots of Roma workers. Whereas before, under communism, they did have a job. Then there’s a period of civil war. When they go to their high school dance, their graduation ceremony, they have to have a military presence, men with machine guns, because the possibility of being shot up, for some reason that you don’t even understand, is so high.

What makes it so good is that not only is it a fantastic subject, but she tells it beautifully. It’s very funny. There are these wonderful stories. Her parents fall out with the neighbours over an empty Coke can. An empty Coke can is so sophisticated, they put it in pride of place on the mantelpiece. Then the neighbours accuse her parents of having stolen it. The children also trade bubble gum wrappers. They’ve never seen bubble gum, but somehow wrappers have been left behind. They smell them and trade them.

I was very excited to see this book on the shortlist because I went on holiday to Albania in 2019 and found it fascinating. While I was there, I read an eye-opening novel by Ismail Kadare (and visited his house), but nonfiction about this recent period was thin on the ground. This book does fill that gap, quite apart from her reflections on communism versus capitalism.

She’s very funny about how after 1990, you start to get left-wing people coming to Albania—Scandinavians in particular—and lecturing the Albanians. ‘You had the wrong sort of socialism. You should do it our way’. It’s the absolute colonizing arrogance of the European hard left coming in and telling Albanians that they’d been doing communism all wrong.

As part of being shortlisted for the 2021 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction, both Cal Flyn and Lea Ypi did short videos, explaining what their books are about. Lea says, “It’s a book about freedom”. Is this what you were referring to earlier, comparing freedom under communism to supposedly greater freedom under capitalism?

Yes. The point she makes is that something was hugely lost when they switched to a market economy and liberal democracy. Before, there was enormous solidarity. There were informal financial dealings between neighbours: you lent your neighbour half a pound of sugar or all your life savings because you knew you would get it back. There was absolute trust. Things were bad, but you were all in it together. There was a sense of comradeship, a touching belief that it really mattered that everybody should have a chance to flourish, that this is what they were doing, and a real belief that that was possible, no matter how naive that seems.

Once liberal democracy comes in, something is lost. There are Ponzi schemes, there’s aggressive individualism. She’s very, very critical of capitalism, she really is. She ends by saying that she thinks that socialism is still a vibrant possibility.

Part of our best books of 2021 series.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Kathryn Hughes

Kathryn Hughes

Kathryn Hughes is Professor of Life Writing at the University of East Anglia. She is the author of four books on 19th century cultural history, the most recent of which is Victorians Undone. She is also literary nonfiction critic for the Guardian. 

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Kathryn Hughes

Kathryn Hughes

Kathryn Hughes is Professor of Life Writing at the University of East Anglia. She is the author of four books on 19th century cultural history, the most recent of which is Victorians Undone. She is also literary nonfiction critic for the Guardian.