Arts and Culture

Is this the best non-fiction book of 2022? Super-Infinite wins this year’s Baillie Gifford Prize

The Baillie Gifford Prize considers books across all areas of non-fiction, from current affairs, politics and more.

The Baillie Gifford Prize considers books across all areas of non-fiction, from current affairs, politics and more. Image: Unsplash/Alexander Grey

Ian Shine
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  • Britain’s Baillie Gifford Prize is a book award for the best non-fiction written in English each year.
  • This year’s winner is Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne by Katherine Rundell, a biography of a poet who was also a law scholar, a sea adventurer and a member of parliament.
  • Here’s a look at Super-Infinite and the other five books shortlisted for the prize.

The Baillie Gifford Prize is an annual British book award for the best non-fiction written in English. Formerly known as the Samuel Johnson prize – after the creator of the first English dictionary – it was founded in 1999 and considers books across all areas of non-fiction, from current affairs, history and politics, to sport, science and travel.

Past winners of the £50,000 ($59,000) prize have ranged from 2018’s Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy to a history of The Beatles by Craig Brown, which won in 2020. Other books to have taken the prize include Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter About People Who Think Differently and Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, which tells the story of a year she spent training a northern goshawk following her father's death.

The 2022 Baillie Gifford Prize winner: Super-Infinite by Katherine Rundell

This year’s Baillie Gifford Prize winner is Super-Infinite by Katherine Rundell. Subtitled The Transformations of John Donne, it’s a biography of an English poet who was also a law scholar, a sea adventurer, a member of parliament, a priest and the dean of London’s iconic St Paul’s Cathedral.

Super-Infinite by Katherine Rundell has won the 2022 Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction.
Super-Infinite by Katherine Rundell has won the 2022 Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction. Image: Faber.

Donne lived from 1572 to 1631 and was considered a “metaphysical poet” – a term created by none other than that famous dictionary-maker Samuel Johnson. The Poetry Foundation says the metaphysical poets were: “A group of 17th-century poets whose works are marked by philosophical exploration, colloquial diction, ingenious conceits, irony, and metrically flexible lines. Topics of interest often included love, religion, and morality.”

Rundell describes Donne as “the greatest writer of desire in the English language”. One of Donne’s best-known poems is The Flea, which showcases the “ingenious conceits” those metaphysical poets were renowned for – it uses the image of a flea sucking the blood from a pair of lovers to explore the ideas of conflict and lust.

But as Super-Infinite’s title implies, the book is about more than just Donne’s poetry. It’s about his inability to be satisfied with being just one thing. “If there is an overarching argument, then it’s about Donne as an ‘infinity merchant’,” UK newspaper The Guardian wrote in its review. “In embracing infinity, he turned eternity into a mathematical concept, and there is pulsing excitement to his quest for this quality.”

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The Baillie Gifford Prize shortlist

Here are the five other shortlisted books that Super-Infinite beat to win the 2022 Baillie Gifford Prize.

My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World's Deadliest Migration Route by Sally Hayden

It may not have won the Baillie Gifford, but Sally Hayden’s investigation of the migrant crisis across North Africa has already won the Orwell Prize for political writing and the Michel Déon Prize for non-fiction.

A book cover titled 'My Fourth Time We Drowned'. Baillie Gifford Prize
Baillie Gifford Prize' shortlisted My Fourth Time, We Drowned has already won two prestigious awards. Image: HarperCollins.

The book began when Hayden received a Facebook message from a refugee in a Libyan prison. It highlights devastating levels of human suffering and delves into the systemic issues behind it, from the 21st-century slave trade to frustrations among aid workers and problems with European policy decisions.

Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire by Caroline Elkins

Caroline Elkins won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya. The wrongs committed by the British Empire come under the microscope again in her latest book, a nearly 900-page dissection of what fellow author Amitav Ghosh describes as a “hidden legacy, the bitter fruits of which are becoming more and more visible every day”.

A book cover titled 'Legacy Of Violence'. Baillie Gifford Prize shortlist
Caroline Elkins draws on records from 37 former colonies to claim that violence was always at the heart of the British Empire, was shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize 2022. Image: Penguin.

Elkins argues that defences of the British Empire on the grounds that it helped spread modernization and the rule of law are deeply flawed. She draws on records from 37 former colonies to claim that violence was always at the empire’s heart – and that it was more about economic exploitation than empowerment.

The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World by Jonathan Freedland

Rudolf Vrba was the first person to escape from Auschwitz. He was taken into the death camp at the age of 17 and imprisoned there for nearly two years before finding a way out.

A book cover titled 'The Escape Artist'. Baillie Gifford Prize
Baillie Gifford Prize' shortlisted, The Escape Artist tells the story of the first person to escape from Auschwitz. Image: HarperCollins.

However, before he escaped, Vrba systematically documented what he saw going on. He had been a highly talented student of science and mathematics, and he committed every detail he saw to memory. Once outside the camp, this information made up a report that would reach world leaders and save thousands of lives.

The Restless Republic: Britain Without a Crown by Anna Keay

When Queen Elizabeth II died this year, her son became King Charles III immediately, meaning the United Kingdom did not go a single second without a monarch. In 1649, however, Britain’s monarchy was abolished altogether after revolution broke out.

A book cover titled 'The Restless Republic'. Baillie Gifford Prize
Anna Keay uses the people of the 1650s as guides to a time when Britain had no monarch. Image: HarperCollins.

The Restless Republic by Anna Keay traces what happened in the 10 years after Charles I was executed for treason in 1649. However, instead of writing it like a traditional history book, she uses various people from the time as guides to the era – from the daughter of a shipbuilder to the lawyer who tried Charles I.

A Fortunate Woman: A Country Doctor’s Story by Polly Morland

The 1967 book A Fortunate Man by John Berger told the story of a country doctor working at the time of the birth of the UK’s National Health Service. Polly Morland consciously references that title for her book, which tells the story of a female doctor working in the same valley community 50 years later.

A book cover titled 'A Fortunate Woman'. Baillie Gifford Prize
Polly Morland explores what it means to be a doctor in today’s world, was shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize 2022. Image: Pan Macmillan.

“Revisiting Berger's story after half a century of seismic change, both in our society and in the ways in which medicine is practised​, A Fortunate Woman sheds light on what it means to be a doctor in today's complex and challenging world,” says the book’s publisher, Pan Macmillan, and the critics agreed.

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