2016 Cundill Prize – Thomas W Laquer, The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains

It may not be as famous as the Booker or the Pulitzer, but recently McGill University in Montreal announced the 2016 winner of their Cundill Prize in Historical Literature. The Cundill Prize is the largest non-fiction history prize in the world. It’s important because it reflects a genuine desire to reward historians and researchers for publications which are “determined to have had, or likely to have, a profound literary, social and intellectual impact.” The Cundill Prize website states that they aim to recognise “outstanding works of non-fiction that are grounded in scholarly research while retaining wide appeal and interest to the general public.”

This year the prize was won by Laqueur for his book The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains. Thomas W Laqueur is the Helen Fawcett Professor of History at the University of California Berkeley, and has written extensively on the historical conceptions of the body, with particular reference to sexuality. It’s a fascinating history of belief and social customs that stretches from the Greek philosopher Diogenes, through the Middle Ages and into our supposedly ‘disenchanted’ age. He writes about the development of churchyards and the very different forms that mass burial can take, and picks through the popular failure of cremation. His work is a new frontier in medical and cultural history as it draws on emerging themes of memory and landscape in order to present a thoroughly public and coherent narrative of how human beings have disposed of their dead.

laqueur

The other two shortlisted books were David Wootton (who taught me at university because this is a really small world) with The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution, and Andrea Wulf for The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World.

Prof Wootton has written about everything from Shakespeare to bone saws in the early modern period, so this comprehensive history of the Scientific Revolution is not entirely unexpected. The younger, less often talked about sibling to the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution was a radical transformation in how human beings came to understand knowledge; what forms it might take, how it might be acquired and quantified, and what intellectual tools future generations would need. It moves through histories of witchcraft, mythology, religion and alchemy to produce a blazing story of the scientists who laid the groundwork for the Industrial Revolution and all major scientific advancements of the modern age.

wootton

Andrea Wulf is a designer, public speaker and journalist working in the UK. Her book on Alexander von Humboldt follows multiple previous works on the history of gardens, botany, astronomy and scientific conceptions of physical space. This book details the life of visionary German naturalist Humboldt and the extensive scientific and cultural work he did. It’s a very difficult biography to summarise, because Humboldt has been linked to all kinds of other people; Thoreau’s Walden owes a debt to Humboldt’s ideas on preservation, Darwin was inspired by Humboldt’s dissemination of scientific observation in poetic narrative, and Thomas Jefferson was moved by his perception of the natural world. Wulf’s work is a clever combination of biography, travel writing and the history of ideas, weaving together a rich setting to support the difficult ecological and philosophical sentiments that Humboldt dealt in. Intellectual biographies are rare enough, but Wulf has resurrected the life of a man often forgotten- his name peppers scientific theory, but until now most of us have had no idea why.

wulf


If you’re interested in finding out about more historical or non-fiction books, then why not look out for the ‘Sunday Non-Fiction Spotlight’? Every week I pick out a non-fiction text that is relevant to current affairs, is of an unusually high quality, or deals with a subject so wonderful and unique that it needs to be shared. If you have a suggestion or any other feedback, leave a comment or find out how to get in touch from the menu above. 

The Shortlist included:

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