Former leading New Zealand publisher and bookseller, and widely experienced judge of both the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Montana New Zealand Book Awards, talks about what he is currently reading, what impresses him and what doesn't, along with chat about the international English language book scene, and links to sites of interest to booklovers.
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Samuel Johnson award winner announced
'Momentous' non-fiction book meticulously details hardships of expeditions and relationship between British and Tibetans
Samuel Johnson prize – Into the Silence by Wade Davis focuses on the doomed attempts by George Mallory, above, to scale Everest. Photograph: Associated Press
Explorer Wade Davis's "momentous" look at George Mallory's doomed attempts to scale Everest has won the UK's top prize for non-fiction, the Samuel Johnson award.
Davis, a Canadian anthropologist and ethnobotanist who is an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, spent 10 years researching and writing Into the Silence. The book puts the three attempts to climb Everest, between 1921 and 1924, into the context of the first world war: most of the 23 climbers had seen action, including Mallory, and Davis explores how the yearning to conquer the mountain was partly a response to the atrocities of the previous decade. "What is truly extraordinary about this book is that it takes fairly famous subjects, like the first world war, British imperialism and the Everest expeditions, and makes a completely new narrative, so you look at that period of history in a different way," said writer and biographer Patrick French, who was on the judging panel for the £20,000 prize. "He starts off by taking this idea – which didn't seem to have occurred to anyone else – that pretty much all these major figures would have had horrific experiences during the war. "You might have seen them as fairly standard establishment figures, parading around on the mountain, but then you suddenly realise [one of them] had spent the war cutting trenches not through mud but through corpses. They had gone through experiences no one should ever have to go through, and the redemptive idea of climbing this mountain, which no one had ever climbed before, puts them in a different light." Davis meticulously details the hardships of the expeditions, as well as the relationships between the British and the Tibetans. "Snow-blind, suffering from double vision, which was madly disorienting and excruciatingly painful, he went on until he could do no more, turning back finally at 28,126 feet, less than 1,000 feet from the summit," he writes of Edward Norton. "Then things became dangerous. His nerves cracked from exhaustion. In one moment he had been fearlessly pressing on, climbing in waist-deep snow up a chute that exposed him to death with every step. Then the instant he gave up the chase, a world of fear and intimidation closed in on him." David Willetts, the universities minister who chaired the judging panel, called Into the Silence a "momentous" book that "manages to shed new light on events and stories we thought we already knew". It's an "absolutely gripping narrative", agreed French. "It's on the frontier of life and death – it's literally a cliffhanger and I think it will be read for years to come. Our perspective on history, and on colonial history, will be shifted by this book." Davis is the author of 15 books, including Passage of Darkness and The Serpent and the Rainbow, which detail his Haitian investigations into zombies. The other authors on the shortlist were Katherine Boo, selected for her debut, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, an investigation into the lives of the inhabitants of a Mumbai slum; Sue Prideaux for her biography of August Strindberg; Paul Preston's The Spanish Holocaust; Steven Pinker's history of violence, The Better Angels of Our Nature; and Robert Macfarlane's search for Britain's ancient roads, The Old Ways.