Chair of Judges Martin Rees on his 'dream team'
I've always been ambivalent about Oscars, Nobel Prizes, and the like, where the criteria are subjective and the choices controversial. For me, the best kinds of prizes are those when the winner is clearcut and uncontroversial - Olympic medals, for instance.
So why did I take on the seemingly impossible challenge of picking a 'winner' from the thousands of non-fiction books published in this country each year? It was partly because it would focus my summer reading, and I knew I'd enjoy the chance to share my views with others of more refined acuity. And of course I felt flattered to be asked. The Samuel Johnson prize enjoys high esteem, and it's a privilege to be involved in its 15th year.
The Chairman's first task is to select and persuade co-judges, hoping to gather a group that collectively span a range of ages, tastes and expertise. I've been lucky to assemble a real 'dream team': Mary Beard, Shami Chakrabarti, Peter Hennessy, and James McConnachie. The books we're reading span history, biography, politics, science, and nature.
Whittling the numbers down to a longlist of about 15, and then to a shortlist, will entail tough choices - and inevitably some rough justice. (The highlight of my own literary career was once reaching the Samuel Johnson Prize longlist - and I feel that this was better than I deserved).
I'm confident that we'll highlight several books that fully deserve to win. I hope nonetheless that the judges can achieve a consensus on the final choice. That's in contrast to some other prizes, when disputes within juries - whether genuine or contrived in order to enhance publicity - have leaked out beforehand.
Be that as it may, the whole exercise should be worthwhile insofar as it boosts interest in serious non-fiction and reduces the obscurity in which too much excellent work languishes, in a world dominated by the ephemera of tweets and blogs.
Image copyright: Anne Purkiss