LONDON — A book that argues Elizabethan poet John Donne should rank alongside William Shakespeare as a literary genius has won Britain’s top non-fiction book prize
British writer Katherine Rundell’s biography ‘Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne’ was named the winner of the £50,000 ($59,000) Baillie Gifford Prize at a ceremony in London on Thursday evening.
Rundell said she would donate her award to a group of refugees and a climate change charity – inspired by Donne’s most famous lines: “No man is an island… any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in humanity.”
“There are people who could use this money better than me,” Rundell told The Associated Press on Friday.
Rundell said Donne – who over the years was a sailor, jurist, legislator and priest – “stepped outside the bounds” of the poetic traditions of his time to talk about the pain and wonders of life.
“He understood that we are deeply flawed and the body is full of decay,” she said. “We are basically some kind of disaster, but the most miraculous disaster that has ever happened on the same hand.”
She said she hoped the book, which took a decade to write, would give readers “a set of tools to unravel it, because when you crack a poem by Donne, it’s like cracking a safe. There is gold inside.
Journalist Caroline Sanderson, who chaired the judging panel, said Rundell’s book was the unanimous choice of the six judges from 362 books submitted for the prize.
She said Rundell, who has published several award-winning children’s novels, wrote “a masterpiece of passion and persuasion”, which “sends you on a journey of discovery”.
Sanderson said the book argues that Donne is “a writer perhaps as great as Shakespeare, and a writer we should all read for his writings on love, sex and death”.
The Baillie Gifford Prize recognizes English-language books from all countries in the fields of current affairs, history, politics, science, sport, travel, biography, autobiography and Arts.
Other finalists were “Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire” by Caroline Elkins; “My Fourth Time We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route” by Sally Hayden; “The Escape Artist: The Man Who Escaped Auschwitz to Warn the World” by Jonathan Freedland; “The Restless Republic: Britain Without a Crown” by Anna Keay; and “A Lucky Woman: A Country Doctor’s Story” by Polly Morland.
Last year’s winner was Patrick Radden Keefe’s ‘The Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty’, an expose on the family that helped spark the opioid epidemic in the United States. .