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The Prize announces the 2023 shortlist

8 October 2023

Hannah Barnes, Tania Branigan, Christopher Clark, Jeremy Eichler, Jennifer Homans and John Vaillant have been announced as the six authors shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction 2023. The shortlist was revealed by the Chair of judges, Frederick Studemann, live from an event at Cheltenham Literature Festival. Studemann was in conversation with last year’s winner, Katherine Rundell, about her remarkable biography of John Donne, Super-Infinite, which was catapulted up the book charts by its Baillie Gifford Prize win.

The prize aims to recognise and reward the best of non-fiction and is open to authors of any nationality. It covers all non-fiction in the areas of current affairs, history, politics, science, sport, travel, biography, autobiography and the arts. As part of the celebrations marking the prize’s 25th anniversary, it has been decided that as well as the winning author receiving £50,000, the other shortlisted authors will receive £5,000 (up from £1,000), bringing the total prize value up to £75,000.

The shortlist of 6 books were chosen by this year’s judging panel: Literary Editor of Financial Times, Frederick Studemann (chair); historian and author Andrea Wulf, theatre critic for The Guardian Arifa Akbar, the writer and historian Ruth Scurr, journalist and critic Tanjil Rashid and Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Arts Andrew Haldane. Their selection was made from the 12 books on the longlist, which had been chosen from 265 books published between 1 November 2022 and 31 October 2023.

The titles on this year’s shortlist are:

Author / co-author (Nationality)

Title (Imprint)

Hannah Barnes (British)

Time to Think: The Inside Story of the Collapse of the Tavistock's Gender Service for Children (Swift Press)

Tania Branigan (British)

Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China's Cultural Revolution (Faber & Faber)

Christopher Clark (Australian)

Revolutionary Spring: Fighting for a New World 1848-1849 (Allen Lane, Penguin Random House)

Jeremy Eichler (American)

Time’s Echo: The Second World War, The Holocaust, and The Music of Remembrance (Faber & Faber)

Jennifer Homans (American)

Mr. B: George Balanchine’s Twentieth Century (Granta Books, Granta)

John Vaillant (American-Canadian)

Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World (Sceptre, Hodder & Stoughton)

Frederick Studemann, chair of judges, says:
“I'm delighted with the range, originality and relevance of this year's short-list. Alongside works from the frontline of the battle with climate change and institutional failure within the NHS, it includes haunting and inspiring books on the transcendental nature of music and dance, the legacy of the Cultural Revolution as well as the story of one of Europe's great forgotten revolutions. While each title is distinct and different - some are the result of a lifetime's work, others the product of courageous and clear-sighted reporting - they are all top class thought-provoking, even surprising, works of literary non-fiction.”

A common theme on this year’s shortlist is shedding of new light on familiar periods of history by bringing to life forgotten stories and exploring new perspectives. With her debut book, Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China's Cultural Revolution, Tania Branigan explores the enduring impact of the Cultural Revolution on China today through the rarely heard personal stories of the individuals who experienced Mao’s tumultuous era.

With Time’s Echo: The Second World War, The Holocaust, and The Music of Remembrance, Jeremy Eichler explores the role of music as a witness to history and a means of preserving cultural memory in the post-Holocaust world. Eichler explores how composers such as Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg, Benjamin Britten, and Dmitri Shostakovich transformed their experiences of World War II and the Holocaust into powerful musical works that carry forward the ‘echoes’ of the past.

Mr. B: George Balanchine’s Twentieth Century by Jennifer Homans offers a fresh perspective on the 20th Century through the extraordinary life of choreographer George Balanchine, who, born in Russia under the last Czar, experienced the upheavals of World War I, the Russian Revolution, exile, World War II, and the Cold War, before becoming the co-founder of the New York Ballet.

Meanwhile, Christopher Clarke’s Revolutionary Spring: Fighting for a New World 1848-1849, vividly portrays a momentous era of history. Marked by the collapse of political order and the spread of new ideas which would shape a new and drastically different Europe, the transformative period of 1848-1849 addressed issues such as women’s role in society, the abolition of slavery, the right to work, national sovereignty, and the emancipation of the Jewish population.

Major climate issues are addressed by John Valliant in Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World, which delves into the devastating wildfires that struck Fort McMurrary, Alberta, in May 2016. Valliant skillfully examines the interconnected narratives of the oil industry and climate science, the immense devastation caused by modern wildfires, and the lasting impacts on the lives of those affected by these disasters.

Topical themes are also explored in Time to Think: The Inside Story of the Collapse of the Tavistock's Gender Service for Children by debut author Hannah Barnes. Drawing on internal documents, emails, and testimonies, Barnes examines the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) in Tavistock, which was originally established to provide therapy for young people questioning their gender and has now referred a thousand children for puberty-blocking medication. The book questions whether such medical interventions are appropriate, and highlights concerns that ideological factors may have superseded clinical considerations, leading to a serious medical scandal at GIDS.

The shortlisted authors will be interviewed on The Baillie Gifford Prize Read Smart podcast, generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation. All previous episodes are available on Apple Podcasts, SpotifySoundCloud and YouTube

Shortlisted books: judges’ comments

Time to Think: The Inside Story of the Collapse of the Tavistock's Gender Service for Children, Hannah Barnes

“This extensive investigation into the Tavistock Centre’s gender identity development service (GIDS) unpicks its systematic failures, from managerial cover-up to obfuscation and woeful lack of due process. Hannah Barnes steadfastly refuses to enter into the Manichean ideological debates and culture wars around gender identity. Instead she unearths the facts to present an alarming story of medical scandal.”

Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China's Cultural Revolution, Tania Branigan

“The Cultural Revolution is one of the most tumultuous and important events in modern Chinese history. And yet it remains something of a proverbial elephant: ever-present and a defining force for so many Chinese today, from President Xi downwards, but rarely discussed. It's therefore no small achievement that Tania Branigan succeeds in revealing the enduring and haunting scars of the Cultural Revolution through the masterful marshalling of the stories of witnesses and victims. As well as putting a human face on to a highly complex story, Red Memory challenges us to consider more broadly the politics of memory.”

Revolutionary Spring: Fighting for a New World 1848-1849, Christopher Clark

“This is a magisterial account of the causes, unfolding and consequences of the European revolutions of 1848. Too often dismissed as failures, Christopher Clark shows how these revolutions shaped European history and reverberated throughout the world. Beautifully written with great sensitivity to the lives caught up in social and political upheaval, Revolutionary Spring is a powerful book that will engage contemporary readers and influence accounts of European history for decades to come.”

Time’s Echo: The Second World War, The Holocaust, and The Music of Remembrance, Jeremy Eichler

“Time’s Echo is a wonderful cultural history of classical music as it contended with the chaos and brutality of the Second World War and the Holocaust, zooming in on four major modern European composers - Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Benjamin Britten - and the work they produced in the aftermath of war. Jeremy Eichler, music critic for The Boston Globe, proves himself to be an effective populariser of some quite forbidding music, helping us to understand it by rooting it in the history that made it. We remember music, Eichler says, but music also remembers us: this is the brilliant insight that informs every page of his book.”

Mr. B: George Balanchine’s Twentieth Century, Jennifer Homans

“The first non-academic biography of probably the greatest choreographer of modern times, Mr B: George Balanchine’s Twentieth Century tells the story of a Russian-born Georgian-American dance genius against the background of two world wars and the Soviet Union from which Balanchine fled as part of that talented generation of exiles that included Nabokov and Stravinsky (with whom Balanchine collaborated). Biographer Jennifer Homans, a professor of history with an unusual background as a trained professional dancer, really gives us a sense of the magic of dance as an art form at the same time as demystifying for us all the thought, creativity and athleticism that goes into it.”

Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World, John Vaillant

“Fire Weather is a meticulously researched, beautifully told and vitally relevant account of an environmental and industrial disaster that erupted in the heart of the giant subarctic oil sands fields of northern Canada in 2016. John Vaillant tells the story of a particular disaster - one of this century's most intense fires that emerged from the vast boreal forests and went on to destroy neighbourhoods, displaced tens of thousands of people and cost billions of dollars - to explore the broader issues of the economics, politics and environmental aspects of the global oil industry (the petrocene age) and our relationship with and dependence on fossil fuels.”

Students from University of Birmingham shadowing the prize

This year, students studying the new Digital Media & Communications course at University of Birmingham will be undertaking a project on the prize as part of their syllabus. They attended today’s shortlist event hosted at Cheltenham Literature Festival, and will now be reading and commenting on the shortlisted books, as well as creating content for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction’s official podcast: Read Smart, generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

The winner announcement

The winner will be announced on Thursday 16 November at an award ceremony at the Science Museum, generously supported by the Blavatnik Foundation. The announcement will also be livestreamed across the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction social channels.

Last year’s winner was Katherine Rundell for Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne, which became a Sunday Times top ten bestseller.