The Swerve has won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction. The citation says it’s “a provocative book arguing that an obscure work of philosophy, discovered nearly 600 years ago, changed the course of history by anticipating the science and sensibilities of today.”
I think that overstates the book’s argument; it makes the case that the rediscovery of De Rerum Natura was emblematic of and contributed to the changes that were happening, not that it was solely responsible for the changes. Furthermore, the book is anything but provocative. The Renaissance was about rediscovering works by the ancient Greeks and Romans, and these rediscoveries helped usher in the modern world. I learned that in grade school. The Swerve just provides an entertaining example of how this happened. Apparently that was enough.
At any rate, in my opinion The Swerve wasn’t even the best nonfiction book of 2011 written by a professor at the World’s Greatest University. I was far more impressed with, and learned far more from, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, which I read just before starting my blogging career.
So how do you get a Pulitzer? The description of the process on the Pulitzer site is vague to the point of incomprehensibility. It says: “While the journalism process goes forward, shipments of books totaling some 1,000 titles are being sent to five letters juries for their judging …” Apparently anyone with a book and $50 can apply. Here is the form. It’s easier than applying to college, and about as cheap.
But what do the judges do with all the submissions? They obviously can’t read more than a fraction of them. Was Pinker’s book at a disadvantage because it was 800+ pages, and the judges didn’t have time to get through it all? Or was its somewhat controversial thesis a problem? The Swerve was short and entertaining and sufficiently highbrow. Maybe that was enough.
I wonder when the Pulitzers will start accepting ebooks….