Cundill Prize in History at McGill 2012 short list

Posted on March 20th, 2014

Stephen Greenblatt The Swerve:
How the Renaissance Began

(Bodley Head and W.W. Norton & Company)

Book Summary

One of the world’s most celebrated scholars, Stephen Greenblatt has crafted both an innovative work of history and a thrilling story of discovery, in which one manuscript, plucked from a thousand years of neglect, changed the course of human thought and made possible the world as we know it.  Nearly six hundred years ago, a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late 30s took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. The book was the last surviving manuscript of an ancient Roman philosophical epic, “On the Nature of Things,” by Lucretius — a thrillingly beautiful poem of the most dangerous of ideas: that the universe functioned without the aid of gods, that religious fear was damaging to human life, and that matter was made up of very small particles in eternal motion.  The copying and translation of this ancient book, the greatest discovery of the greatest book-hunter of his age, fueled the Renaissance, inspiring artists such as Botticelli and thinkers such as Giordano Bruno, shaping the thoughts of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein, and influencing writers from Montaigne to Thomas Jefferson.

Julia Lovell The Opium War:
Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China


Book Summary

A comprehensive and compelling account of the causes and consequences of the Opium War ‘On the outside, [the foreigners] seem intractable, but inside they are cowardly. . . Although there have been a few ups-and-downs, the situation as a whole is under control.’  In October 1839, a few months after the Chinese Imperial Commissioner, Lin Zexu, dispatched these confident words to his emperor, a cabinet meeting in Windsor voted to fight Britain’s first Opium War (1839-42) with China. The conflict turned out to be rich in tragicomedy: in bureaucratic fumblings, military missteps, political opportunism and collaboration. Yet over the past 170 years, this strange tale of misunderstanding, incompetence and compromise has become the founding myth of modern Chinese nationalism: the start of China’s heroic struggle against a Western conspiracy to destroy the country with opium and gunboat diplomacy.  Beginning with the dramas of the war itself, Julia Lovell explores its causes and consequences and, through this larger narrative, interweaves the curious stories of opium’s promoters and attackers. The Opium War is both the story of modern China – starting from this first conflict with the West – and an analysis of the country’s contemporary self-image. It explores how China’s national myths mould its interactions with the outside world, how public memory is spun to serve the present; and how delusion and prejudice have bedevilled its relationship with the modern West.

Steven Pinker The Better Angels of our Nature:
The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes

(Allen Lane)

Book Summary

This riveting, myth-destroying book reveals how, contrary to popular belief, humankind has become progressively less violent, over millenia and decades.  Can violence really have declined? The images of conflict we see daily on our screens from around the world suggest this is an almost obscene claim to be making. Extraordinarily, however, Steven Pinker shows violence within and between societies – both murder and warfare – really has declined from prehistory to today. We are much less likely to die at someone else’s hands than ever  before. Even the horrific carnage of the last century, when compared to  the dangers of pre-state societies, is part of this trend.  Debunking both the idea of the ‘noble savage’ and an over-simplistic Hobbesian notion of a  ‘nasty, brutish and short’ life, Steven Pinker argues that modernity and its cultural institutions are actually making us better people. He ranges over everything from art to religion, international trade to individual table  manners, and shows how life has changed across the centuries and around the world – not simply through the huge benefits of organized  government, but also because of the extraordinary power of progressive ideas. Why has this come about? And what does it tell us about ourselves? It takes one of the world’s greatest  psychologists to have the ambition and the breadth of understanding to appreciate and explain this story, to show us our very natures.

Stephen Platt Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom:
China, The West, And The Epic Story of The Taiping Civil War

(Alfred A. Knopf)

Book Summary

Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom is a remarkable new account of the Taiping conflict in nineteenth-century China that shows how the destinies of millions of Chinese were affected by British and even American interests. In so doing it offers an invaluable perspective on a terrible and bloody war that could have set China on the path to modernity but instead consigned it to further decades of malaise under the collapsing Qing regime.

Andrew Preston Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith:
Religion in American War and Diplomacy

(Alfred A. Knopf Canada)

Book Summary

A first major work of history on a crucial but under-examined topic, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith explores the role of religion in American foreign policy. From the first colonists to the presidents of the 21st Century, Andrew Preston’s unparalleled study show us how religion has always shaped America’s relationships with other nations, and what to expect in the future.  During the presidency of George W. Bush, many Americans and others around the world viewed the entrance of religion into foreign policy discourse, especially with regard to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as a “new” development. But despite the official division between church and state, the presence of religion in American foreign policy has been a constant since before the Founding Fathers. Yet aside from leaders known to be personally religious, such as Bush, Jimmy Carter and Woodrow Wilson, few realize how central faith has always been to American governance and diplomacy–and indeed to the idea of America itself. In Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith, Andrew Preston starts at the beginning, and with revelatory findings, shows us how and why.

Anna Reid Leningrad:
Tragedy of a City Under Siege, 1941-44

(Allen Lane Canada)

Book Summary

This is the story of the siege of Leningrad, the deadliest blockade of a city in human history. Between September 1941 and January 1944, during which time the city was besieged by Nazi Germany, approximately threequarters of a million civilians starved to death: 35 times more civilians died than in London’s Blitz; four times more than in the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima put together. Had Hitler succeeded in taking Leningrad, he would have had access to the Soviet Union’s biggest arms manufacturers, shipyards and steelworks. He could have linked his armies with Finland’s, and cut the railway lines carrying Allied aid from the Arctic ports of Archangel and Murmansk. But Leningrad wasn’t taken. In Leningrad, the siege’s most eloquent victims—the diarists whose voices form the core of this book—convey stories of humanity in extremis and remind us of what it is to be human, of the depths and heights of human behaviour. Voices range from Zhdanov, the CP leader trying to organize defence and supplies for his embattled city, to Tanya Savich, whose heartwrenching diary records the deaths from starvation of her entire family