With more and more books published every year, it's hard to know which ones to read. In the UK, we are lucky to have the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction (known as the Samuel Johnson Prize until 2014). A panel of judges picks out the best nonfiction books of the year. Though there is only one winner, the books on the prize's shortlist (and even its longlist) tend to be excellent. Books are chosen not only for their interesting subject matter but also because they're highly readable. Don't be surprised to find yourself enwrapped in a book on a subject you didn't even know you were interested in.
This year, to celebrate the prize's 25th anniversary, judges picked out a winner of winners from a shortlist of six—revealing if not the best nonfiction books of the past quarter of a century, at least a collection of very, very good books.
“This is the best shortcut to the history of the 20th century. She focuses on the meeting between Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau and Woodrow Wilson that decided what the new boundaries would be for the world at Versailles in 1919. On one level it is a great human drama, with Italy popping in and out depending on the state of its government, the origins of the conflict between Greece and Turkey and the Iraq war. That is all the fault of a woman who was a bit in love with Lawrence of Arabia and insisted on creating this country, Iraq. Rupert Murdoch’s father makes an appearance and what has happened in Palestine has its roots here too. Everything for right or wrong in the 20th century, the League of Nations and then the UN…all started here.” Read more...
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“This is probably my favourite work of narrative nonfiction ever. It’s such an amazing book. She’s written about life in North Korea, which is one of the most difficult to access, closed regimes in the world, and she’s done it through very, very detailed interviews with North Korean defectors, mainly in South Korea, where she was based at the time, working as a foreign correspondent. It’s so compelling. It reads like a novel, a real page turner.” Read more...
The Best Narrative Nonfiction Books
“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.” Read more...
The Best Nonfiction Books: The 2021 Baillie Gifford Prize Shortlist
🏆 Winner of the 2020 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction
☆ Shortlisted for the 2023 Winner of Winners Prize, which aims to pick out the best nonfiction book of the past 25 years
Craig Brown's One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time is a quirky and interesting biography of the Fab Four, full of surprising information and interesting reflections on the 1960s, the Beatles' career trajectories and the joys and pitfalls of fame. Anything by Craig Brown is always worth reading.
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