The American conquest

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The American conquest

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James Gleick's "The Information" has won the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books. Is American non-fiction better suited to literary prizes?

Reviewing a book favourably tends to leave one with proprietary feelings towards it, which is why I was delighted to see James Gleick’s elegant The Information win the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books last night. Admittedly, Gleick is not an author who needs this sort of accolade to guarantee good sales, but neither did most of the other contenders, who included Steven Pinker, Brian Greene and Joshua Foer. Pinker’s entry, The Better Angels of Our Nature, was widely expected to win, and indeed it is the sort of book that should: bold, provocative and original. But Gleick probably stole the lead for his glorious prose, scarcely done justice by the judging panel’s description as having “verve and fizz.” For that, go to Foer.

Gleick has enjoyed international acclaim ever since his first book in 1987, Chaos, which introduced the world to the “butterfly effect”—now as much of a catchphrase for our unpredictable future as Malcolm Gladwell’s “tipping point.” Gleick’s style has since moved away from the genre-fiction potted portraits of scientists (“a tall, angular, and sandy-haired Texas native,” “a dapper, black-haired Californian transplanted from Argentina”), which soon became a cliché in the hands of lesser writers, and has matured into something approaching the magisterial.

And might that, perhaps, explain why five of the six finalists for this year’s prize were American? (The sixth, Lone Frank, is a Danish science writer, but sounds as though she learnt her flawless English on the other side of the pond.) There have been American winners before, Greene among them, but most (including the previous four) have been British. Maybe one should not read too much into this American conquest—it just so happened that three of the biggest US hitters, as well as one new wunderkind, had books out last year. But might the American style be better geared to literary prizes?

There surely is an American style: US non-fiction (not just in science writing) differs from British, just as British does from continental European. (Non-British Europeans have been rare indeed in the science book shortlists.) They do grandeur well, in comparison to which even our popular-science grandees, such as Richard Dawkins, Steve Jones and Lewis Wolpert, seem like quiet, diligent academics. The grand style can easily tip into bombast, but when it works it is hard to resist. Just reading the list of winners of the Pulitzer prize for non-fiction makes one feel exhausted—no room here for the occasional quirkiness of the Samuel Johnson.

This year’s science book prize shortlist was irreproachable—indeed, one of the strongest for years. But it will be interesting to see whether, in this straitened time for writers, only the big and bold survive.

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Philip Ball

Philip Ball
Philip Ball’s latest book is “Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything” (Bodley Head) 

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