Insight into what it means to be human

The Wellcome Book Prize shortlist is announced.

The shortlist for the 2017 Wellcome Book Prize is announced today. David France, Paul Kalanithi, Maylis de Kerangal, Sarah Moss, Siddhartha Mukherjee and Ed Yong all remain in the running for the £30,000 prize, which celebrates exceptional works of fiction and non-fiction that engage with the topics of health and medicine and the many ways they touch our lives. 

The judging panel praised both the extraordinary variety of writing and the diversity of subjects, from questions of humanity and mortality to the microscopic components of our body. The full shortlist is: How to Survive a Plague by David France; When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi; Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal; The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss; The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee; and I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong.

There is perhaps less of psychological interest on the shortlist than last year, and Jo Marchant’s longlisted Cure has not made the final cut. However, the two fiction contenders – The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss and Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal – both celebrate and interrogate the intricacies of modern-day healthcare systems, and this year’s four non-fiction titles shine a light on the human stories behind scientific developments and medical care, as well as opening a door to extraordinary new worlds. 

Paul Kalanithi’s life-affirming memoir When Breath Becomes Air chronicles his transformation from medical student to neurosurgeon, patient and father before his sad death while working on this book. It is the first posthumously published title to be in contention for the Wellcome Book Prize. 

How to Survive a Plague by David France is the powerful story of the 1980s AIDS epidemic and the bravery of the activists, many facing their own life-or-death struggles, who campaigned for scientific research to help develop accessible, effective treatment. 

I Contain Multitudes, Ed Yong’s debut book, provides a page-turning exploration of the body’s 40 trillion microbes, and how our microscopic companions not only sculpt our organs, protect us from diseases and guide our behaviour, but also hold the key to understanding all life on Earth. 

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene highlights the relevance of genetics within everyday life and interrogates concerns with our growing ability to alter the human genome. Woven within this narrative is an intimate story of Mukherjee’s own family and its recurring pattern of mental illness. Psychologist and judge Simon Baron-Cohen said: ‘How can one write about the field of genetics in an intimate way? Mukherjee achieves this by beautifully weaving together his own family history of schizophrenia, in his homeland of India, with the history of the gene, its discovery, its horrific abuse during Nazi eugenics, and the rapid change in technology such that we can now read a person’s complete genome for $1,000. Compelling reading.’

Chair of Judges and celebrated Scottish crime writer Val McDermid commented: ‘What these six challenging, diverse and enriching titles have in common is their insight into what it means to be human. Together they form a mosaic that illuminates our relationship with health and medicine. It spans our origins, our deaths and much that lies between, from activism to acts of human kindness.’

The winner will be announced at an evening ceremony on Monday 24 April at Wellcome Collection. 

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