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Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail)
Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

If you love history, read on Add to ...

Lovers of great history books, awake! Next week, Canada’s Cundill Prize, the richest non-fiction prize in the world ($75,000 to the winner), will announce its list of six books for the 2012 award.

Someone in a position to have the list is going to publish it here, as a help to those who love history or to those who just like a large read on big subjects.

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A word about the prize. It was established in 2008 by Peter Cundill, a McGill University graduate who set aside money for his alma mater to give this prize in history (he died in January, 2011). The university selects jurors from different countries, usually the United States, Britain and Canada, because the prize goes to the best book written in, or translated into, English in the wide field of history. The general criteria for the shortlisted books and, of course, the eventual winner: a book whose author wears great learning lightly.

This year, 147 books thundered into the jurors’ homes, on subjects including aboriginals in Australia, the War of 1812, the family of Karl Marx, the history of the cigarette industry, the building of the railway across the United States, slavery in New France and the battle for independence in Haiti.

The jury has selected what members consider the six best. The top three will be named later this month, and the winner announced at a gala dinner in Montreal on Nov. 29. As a public service to all lovers of history, here are the six:

The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began, by Stephen Greenblatt. This book won the Pulitzer Prize in the United States for its erudition, sweep and daring study of the Renaissance. Those who read Will in the World will already appreciate Mr. Greenblatt’s writing fluidity. Here, he takes the discovery of an obscure text, Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, and explores how its ideas caused a rethinking of much medieval religious doctrine.

The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China, by Julia Lovell. Just what were the British doing in China selling opium from India, and making sure by any and all means, including military might, that the addiction continued? Massive hypocrisy attended the war that the British eventually fought to retain their privileges. Ms. Lovell’s delightfully sharp pen sketches the main characters, Chinese and British, and adds spices of acid and humour to a period the Chinese have never forgotten.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes, by Steven Pinker. As a antidote to today’s headlines about troubles in the world, read this book. Mr. Pinker argues in a tour de force going back to the Bible (a bloody tome if ever one was written) that today’s world is a less violent place than ever before. It’s an arresting thesis for those accustomed to believe that the last century with its two world wars was the worst.

Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War, by Stephen Platt. Americans believe their Civil War, from 1861 to 1865, was bloody. About half a million Americans died in that slaughter. From 1850 to 1864, China had a civil war, the Taiping Rebellion, that cost millions of deaths (no one really knows, but some estimates suggest 20 million). How do you make such slaughter come alive, so to speak? Mr. Platt does so brilliantly, with his narrative swirling around a handful of deeply fascinating characters.

Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy, by Andrew Preston. From the Pilgrims’ City on a Hill to today’s incantation, “And may God bless the United States of America,” religion has never been far, and often has been central, to the shaping and making of U.S. foreign policy. Mr. Preston explains how and why.

Leningrad: Tragedy of a City Under Siege, 1941-44, by Anna Reid. The winter of 1941, with the Nazis at the gates, was frightful for the desperate citizens of this city who, Ms. Reid argues, were made to suffer not just from the German assault but also from the horrible planning, poor leadership and ideological blinders of the Soviet leadership.

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