Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Cundill Prize Shortlist

McGill University has announced the shortlist for the new Cundill Prize in History, the $75,000 prize for history books written and published in English or French anywhere in the world on any historical subject. It is funded by British financier Peter Cundill and run by his alma mater, McGill.

The titles and authors on the list are not exactly household names (even among households with a historian in them). So much so that I wondered if we had another instance of a prize conceived as a general reader's enthusiam (Cundill, a commerce grad, said when he created the prize that his main historical interest was reading biographies of Winston Churchill) being captured by academic special interests.

But in fact the jury is an interesting one, intriguingly diverse: writer Denise Chong, cultural politician Serge Joyal, Beaverbrook heir Tim Aitken (!), as well as the superb historian Natalie Zemon Davis and a couple of other professors unknown to me. One could quibble, but these are not academic logrollers.

It's still curious that none of these titles seem to have made any significant splash in the culture before their nominations, and that none of the authors are particularly prominent historians. But I find myself thinking of the immense challenge in considering all the eligible history books published in the world, let alone coming up with a shortlist that did not seem eccentric.

We should also salute the Cundill for coming up with a short shortlist: just three titles. Self-indulgent GG juries, with fourteen prizes covering much smaller topic areas, invariably dilute the honour of a nomination by coming up with five, sometimes six, titles for their shortlists.
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