Friday, 8 July 2011
On Wednesday the Samuel Johnson Prize, awarded to what is considered to be the best non-fiction book of the year, went to "Mao's Great Famine" by Frank Dikotter. The book explores how up to 45 million people died of hunger between 1958 and 1962 due to the terrible economic mismanagement of the country following Mao's "Great Leap Forward" programme. Dikotter blames Mao personally for this, believing he had little interest in saving the lives of his countrymen. He is quoted as saying, "it is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill." Dikotter has been able to use a Chinese archives not previously accessed by historians to piece together this tragedy. One of the judges said, "This book changed my life - I think differently about the 20th century than I did before...We feel we know who the villains of the 20th century are – Stalin and Hitler. But here, fully 50 years after the event, is something we did not know about. It's a testament to the power of non-fiction, that it can rock you back on your heels."
You can read a review of the book here, and more about the Samuel Johnson Prize here, which was also featured on last night's Culture Show on BBC2.
PS: Here is a list of the previous Samuel Johnson prize winners for those looking for holiday reading (especially personal statement writers!)
2010 Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea Barbara Demick
2009 Leviathan, or the Whale Philip Hoare
2008 The Suspicions of Mr Whicher Kate Summerscale
2007 Imperial Life in the Emerald City Rajiv Chandrasekaran
2006 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare James Shapiro
2005 Like a Fiery Elephant Jonathan Coe
2004 Stasiland Anna Funder
2003 Pushkin: A biography T.J. Binyon
2002 Peacemakers: The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 Margaret Macmillan
2001 The Third Reich: A New History Michael Burleigh
2000 Berlioz: Servitude and Greatness David Cairns
1999 Stalingrad Antony Beevor