Non-fiction for everybody in the Samuel Johnson Prize

Ella Rhodes reports on the longlist.

The long list for this year’s Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction includes a book exploring the place of humans in the digital age, as well as an exploration of the history of autism and the future of those who have it. 'We didn't plan it this way', said Chair of Judges Anne Applebaum, 'but this year's Samuel Johnson Prize longlist includes pretty much every important non-fiction genre: biography, history, science writing, travel writing, journalism. There's something for everybody here, whatever your tastes.'

Landmarks, by Robert Macfarlane, is one of the 12 books to be nominated. Described by Editor of The Psychologist Jon Sutton as ‘required reading for psychologists as well as for lovers of language’ it explores language and its role in shaping our sense of place. Macfarlane also compiled glossaries of words used in Britain and Ireland to describe the natural world, among the many beautiful examples are ‘ammil’ a word used in South West England to describe the 'vast glitter and gleam of sunlight on hoarfrost'. In his review of Landmarks Sutton said: ‘Macfarlane writes about writing “so fierce in its focus that it can change the vision of its reader for good, in both senses.” And his own precision achieves just that… there are not many books I would call life-changing, but this is one.’

Wired reporter Steve Silberman’s book, Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter About People Who Think Differently, has also been named on the long list. While Silberman was one of the first to report on the so-called ‘autism epidemic’, in his book he explores the reality behind increasing autism diagnoses as well as case studies of people who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

Silberman also explores the future for people with autism, as knowledge of the disorder increases across the world. He told The Guardian that social media heralded a brighter future for them: ‘In face-to-face, real-time interactions, people on the spectrum are often overloaded… Whereas, on the computer, at their own pace, it’s often much more natural to them. There are now more social possibilities for people on the spectrum than there were before,’ he said.

Other long list entries include Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s shocking memoir of his detainment at Guantánamo Bay – where he has been captive since 2002. The heavily redacted Guantánamo Diary, brings to life all he has endured, from threats against his family to being force-fed seawater and sexual humiliation.

In his review of the book in The Guardian, Tim Stanley wrote: ‘One suspects that a Christian prisoner might have been afflicted with doubt, to have asked what kind of god could let this happen to them. But not Slahi. At a time when Islam is presented in the media as justifying violence, it is instructive to read an account of the ways in which it helps men endure it. After he is interrogated, wounded, drugged and left to suffer by a doctor disguised by a mask, his first thought is to find the Qibla, the direction of Mecca, towards which he can pray.’

The Four-Dimensional Human by Laurence Scott, which explores life in the digital world, is also nominated. The book broadly looks in to the existential impacts on humans of moving into a new, digital age. In a New Statesman article, Psychoanalyst Josh Cohen wrote that one of the book’s virtues was its presentation of online life as a ‘daily mode of existence’ rather than a concrete space one can enter or exit at will. Cohen continued: ‘Scott derives his “fourth dimension” not from cutting-edge technology of the present but from literary texts of the 20th century... The fourth dimension here is “an unrealised, unrealisable infinity of space” folded imperceptibly into our standard three dimensions. This once-fanciful sci-fi scenario is now the air that we breathe.’

The other books to make it onto the long list were: Bruce Robinson’s They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper; Jonathan Bate’s Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life; Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance by Robert Gildea; Oliver Morton’s The Planet Remade; Peter Pomerantsev, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia; Emma Sky’s The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq; Black Earth by Tim Snyder; and Samanth Subramanian’s This Divided Island.

The shortlist for the prize will be released on Sunday 11 October and the winner announced on Monday 2 November. 

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