18 October 2022

Patrick Wright on this year’s British Academy Book Prize Shortlist

Posted by Patrick Wright

Patrick Wright, chair of the judges of this year’s British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding, talks us through the six brilliant shortlisted books.

Now in its tenth year, the British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding is open to non-fiction books published in English from across the Humanities and Social Sciences. Each year the five judges search for books that combine two qualities. We are looking for original research and argument on a topic of global cultural significance. The books also need to be well-written and accessible. The prize accepts works by journalists and independent writers as well as academics, and translations are eligible alongside titles written in English. We take care to include books by independent presses where we can.

The international reach of the prize is increasingly well-established and the number of submissions has been growing fast. This year, a record 170 books were entered. The judges have worked through these to select a shortlist, which the British Academy then brings into public discussion in various ways before the winner is finally announced – as this year’s will be on 26 October.

The shortlist for 2022 includes six books, half of which are works in translation. 

Katie Booth’s The Invention of Miracles: Language, Power and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest to End Deafness (Scribe UK) is a finely poised reconsideration of the work and legacy of Alexander Graham Bell. Booth traces his life, from Edinburgh to Canada and eventually the USA, where he established himself as the inventor of the telephone. Yet her main aim is to understand Bell’s less familiar attempts to devise ‘oralist’ techniques that would enable deaf people, including his wife,  to speak without resorting to sign language. While Booth pursues her enquiry through conventional archives, she also writes as someone who grew up with deaf grandparents and has close experience of the isolation and misery that followed from the oralists’ intransigent battle against sign language. Touching as well as incisive, her book provides a compelling account of a long-running dispute that has touched deaf people around the world. It also warns against the ease with which an apparently well-intentioned man can become obsessive, rigid and destructive as Bell did, harnessing eugenics and whatever institutional power he could muster to justify his implacable opposition to sign language, without ever developing a convincing alternative.  

Jing Tsu’s Kingdom of Characters: a Tale of Language, Obsession and Genius in Modern China (Allen Lane), is about the Chinese script – vast, complex, ideographic and little changed over thousands of years – and the innovations that have been necessary to bring this system based on thousands of characters into coexistence with the 26-letter western alphabet with its linear organisation and its associated technologies. One might anticipate that this would be a dry and technical story, but Jing brings it to life with vivid descriptions of the vital breakthroughs necessary to align this allegedly archaic and moribund script with the card catalogue, the typewriter, the telegraph, and the coming of the computer. She also populates her story with vivid sketches of the innovators, many of whom worked under challenging conditions: under sentence of death, say, or in flight from war, or sometimes in jail. It’s an important and genuinely fascinating story of connections made with great ingenuity and, in the partial reversal of recent years, of separation restored by a ruling party determined to limit the global extension of the internet.

Harald Jähner’s Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich was widely feted when first published in Germany, and we understood why when we read it in Shaun Whiteside’s translation (WH Allen/Ebury Publishing). It is a brilliant study of the experience of people living through the post-war years on both sides of divided Germany. Closely researched and written with close focus as well as flair, it pursues its enquiry through a great diversity of fields and episodes, some or which would justify whole books in themselves. Jähner tells of the households faced with the return of traumatised soldiers, and the millions of indigent refugees who were shuffled around by various emerging authorities. He reviews cultural policy as it was developed in the opposed states, and the trials and achievement of industrial recovery, illustrated partly by the renewal of Volkswagen. There is much here about rubble literature, various forms of compensatory fantasy, and the German response to new presences such as the kidney table, the sex shop and the American GI. If the book is of global significance now, however, this is because it is fundamentally engaged with the question of guilt and the different ways in which responsibility for the Third Reich and its devastating actions was accepted and evaded in the post-war reckoning.

Marit Kapla takes a more grounded approach to recent history in Osebol: Voices from a Swedish Village (Allen Lane; tr. Peter Graves). Although she grew up in this remote and forested settlement in Northern Värmland, she doesn’t allow a single word of her own into this captivating book. At first glance, Osebol may look like a long poem but its lines actually capture the recorded speech of the handful of people still living there. Some of their memories may have an elegiac feeling but the book accumulates into a story in which mobility and transformation figure at least as decisively as any idea of continuity and settlement in a world lamented as lost. Focused on a small and particular place, Osebol provides readers with a lens, both intimate and unillusioned, and silently invites them to draw their own conclusions about the impact of huge global forces – deindustrialisation, war, technological modernisation – on lives that might easily remain unexamined. The book has an integrity of its own, but it also seems to prove the continued vitality of oral history as so influentially advocated half a century ago by the Swedish writer Sven Lindqvist, whose manifesto Dig Where You Stand, is itself soon to be published in English for the first time.

In Horizons: A Global History of Science (Penguin Viking), James Poskett traces the development of modern science across both centuries and continents in order to question and, indeed, to bury the traditional Western idea of science as a self-sufficient product of European enlightenment.  By no means afraid of the big sweep, he makes his case for the wider connections of science by focusing on pivotal moments in its development, showing each to have been closely informed by knowledge from non-Western sources. In every field or epoch, Poskett discovers a rich background of non-occidental understanding and indeed, of more or less willing exchange. He writes persuasively about Aztec, Inca and other indigenous influences on the knowledge of New World colonizers, about Indian observatories and planetary tables, and about Chinese works of natural history that long predate Linnaeus’s classification of plants. We learn that Buddhist ideas of the transformation of species were piquing the curiosity of Japanese philosophers decades before Darwin boarded the Beagle, and see Einstein rescued from his reputation as an ‘isolated genius’ and put back into a wider flow of ideas from Japan, China and Israel. We found Horizons to be a valuable and thought-provoking book, distinguished in its achievement as well as in its intellectual ambition.

In her prologue to When Women Kill: Four Crimes Retold (And Other Stories; tr.  Sophie Hughes), Alia Trabucco Zerán explains her decision to write this truly arresting book at a time of so much violence against women by insisting that understanding truly ‘bad’ women must surely also be a task for feminism. She goes about this by examining the acts and trials of four ‘everyday’ Chilean women who became notorious at different points in the twentieth century for committing murders of a calculated brutality and with apparent indifference to consequences too. Zerán measures the extent to which economic and cultural conditions may have contributed to these killings – most shockingly in the form of the class attitudes that weighed so cruelly on the experience of Teresa Alfaro, a servant who poisoned the milk with which her employer then proceeded to kill her own three children. Rage and hatred may often be a response to injustice but the fact that all four of these convicted murderers escaped the firing squad and had their sentences reduced also points towards a different conclusion. Unwilling to acknowledge that women existed on their own terms and were responsible for their own actions, the men of decision, so Zerán demonstrates, retreated into exactly the conception of womanhood that the killers’ violent actions called into question. Murder, infidelity, sexual freedom, hints of lesbianism: all were attributed to female ‘jealousy’, uncontrollable impulsiveness etc., and the traditional order of things was thereby restored. A Chilean story, to be sure, but one that resonates widely.


Patrick Wright is Chair of the judging panel for the British Academy Book Prize for Global Understanding. He is joined by Madawi al-Rasheed, Catherine Hall, Fatima Manji, and Philippe Sands.

All six writers will be in conversation at a free event at the British Academy, and online, on Monday 24 October, chaired by the award-winning journalist Rosie Goldsmith.

The winner of this year’s £25,000 prize will be announced on 26 October.