As the jurors are getting ready for their summer of reading, we caught up with our 2022 Chair, the award-winning environmental historian J.R. McNeil, on the task ahead, what he'll be looking for, and what the best history can do for us.
Three things at least. First, is reading stacks of excellent history books on all sorts of topics. Usually I feel I am too busy with quotidian tasks to read much of anything that is not required of me, but this responsibility will change that.
Second, is working with other members of the jury, which I anticipate will involve instructive discussions.
Third, is having a voice in the selection of the winner. I'll also be glad to add several dozen new books to my shelves!
The Cundill History Prize has guidelines that emphasize both scholarly rigor and literary quality, so we will look for these qualities. Beyond that, I am sure each juror will have individual preferences and priorities.
I am likely to prefer sweeping, big-picture books that put matters into new perspectives for me; but other jurors will, I hope and trust, see matters differently. That will lead to (cordial, collegial!) debate.
I think this combination is always important and desirable, but in 2022 unusual events such as the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine drive home the value of seeing current affairs within the flow of time, which might mean one millennium in the case of Russia and Ukraine, or much longer spans of time with respect to the evolution of coronavirus, bats, and humans.
Several new wrinkles have emerged lately within environmental history, but I'd say the most noteworthy is the attention to climate history, which helps us grasp the meaning of recent and ongoing rapid climate change. That subfield is growing in sophistication by leaps and bounds.
It's also supremely inter- or multi-disciplinary, which I think is one of the trends of the future for historians.
Obviously, great works of history may be written in any language. It would be nice if jurors could read every language, but absent that superhuman skill, the next best thing is considering works in translation.
Moreover, history, or at least many parts of it, often looks different to people depending on their cultural context and personal experience.
Thucydides hoped his history would be "a possession for all time" rather than something that might merely "win the applause of the moment." The best history, of course, can do both.
It can entertain the curious (and all humans have the capacity for curiosity). It can enlighten the serious (and all humans have the capacity for seriousness). That has been true, and will be true, always and everywhere, not just at this moment in time.
J.R. McNeill, University Professor at Georgetown University, is Chair of the Jury for the 2022 Cundill History Prize. He has authored or edited more than 20 books, including Something New Under the Sun, listed by the London Times among the 10 best science books ever written (despite being a history book); and Mosquito Empires, which won the Beveridge Prize from the American Historical Association; and most recently The Webs of Humankind. He has served as president of both the American Society for Environmental History and the American Historical Association, and is an elected member of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Academia Europaea. In 2018 he received the Heineken Award for History from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.