It is a key point in the calendar for all historians and history lovers to see which books and authors are being honoured and also which periods, regions and subjects are picked out as being truly transformative. That does not just send out an important signal; it also encourages new thinking and new voices to think about how to engage with the past.
Well, the generosity of the prize, for one thing. It is the richest prize for a work of non-fiction in English, and that means that the winner not only has prestige and kudos but new opportunities to conduct further research. Having been both a member and chair of the prize, I also know how seriously the judges take the selection and evaluation process; and because judges come from many different backgrounds and perspectives, their assessments are always pin-sharp as well as filled with insights.
Prizes like the Cundill encourage historians and authors; but they also encourage publishers, history faculties, readers and above all teachers. There are lots of very exciting cutting edge books being written each year – but they struggle for oxygen in a world where the news-cycle is fiercely competitive. So being able to celebrate books on the longlist, shortlist, the finalists and the winner is hugely important to shine a light on the best of the best being produced each year.
Unless I was guaranteed to be rich and powerful, I’d be right here, right now. We might think today’s world looks tricky and dangerous; but I can assure you that for 99% of people alive today, the present and future offer better chances than the past.
Peter Frankopan was Chair of the Jury for the 2020 Cundill History Prize and a juror in 2018. He is Professor of Global History at Oxford University, where he is also Stavros Niarchos Foundation Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research and Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College. His book, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World was described as ‘magnificent’ (Sunday Times) ‘dazzling’ (Guardian), and ‘not just the most important history book in years, but the most important in decades’ (Berliner Zeitung). A New York Times Bestseller, it was named one of the Sunday Times Books of the Decade (2010-19). Peter’s latest book, The Earth Transformed: An Untold History is forthcoming with Bloomsbury.