Is the winner of the Transmission Prize a book... or a meme?

Is the winner of the Transmission Prize a book... or a meme?

Today, philisopher Theodore Zeldin is revealed as the winner of the Transmission Prize for his collection of "conversational essays" The Hidden Pleasures of Life. 

The reason? Not so much the quality of Zeldin's prose or the breadth of his research, but the power of the book to spread ideas by encouraging readers to engage in conversations with loved ones and strangers that "uncover the dark matter of each other's minds".

Created by Salon London, the Transmission Prize "seeks to highlight the work speakers do in bringing their ideas to the live environment", and this year's shortlist - which included Urban Birder David Lindo, nominated for his ‘nature in city’ hacks, and activist Sarah Corbett, who promotes 'gentle protest' through her Craftivist Collective -  focused on projects that offered effective and personal ideas for change.

Zeldin's book doesn't look particularly innovative; the elegantly typeset hardback with gold-embossed cover wouldn't look out of place on 19th-century shelves. But the innovation, according to Transmission's judges, lies in the way the meditations within its pages encourage ideas to spread, viral-style, from readers to their social circles.

"I argued with this book," reports Sion Hamilton, head of retail at Foyles, where the prizegiving ceremony took place. "I lived with it. For me, Zeldlin takes the Socratic command ‘know thyself’ and flips it – to better know oneself you must learn to know others.  And this business of learning how to listen, trying to know others, is an enriching journey that will last a lifetime. This book offers the reader a framework, starts a conversation, in which you can think about your life."

Margaret Heffernan, chair of the 2016 panel, said “The Hidden Pleasures of Life is a perfect example of a book full of history and knowledge but which comes to life when readers start asking themselves the questions it poses — and find themselves living differently. It’s a transformative book."

There's certainly an argument to be made that all books are memes. However, riding as it does off the back of our apparently insatiable hunger for self-help and popular psychology, Zeldin's success might just herald a new genre that directly positions them as practical tools for social change. Indeed, the author has plans to expand Hidden Pleasure's impact throughout the year by involving thousands of people from across the country in conversation ‘meals’, in which two strangers select topics of conversation from a ‘menu’ he has developed specifically for social change.

In The Bookseller's roundup of non-fiction trends for 2016, Bluebird's Carole Tonkinson predicted the emergence of “the next generation of self-help” tailored to a "younger, hipper" audience with a predeliction for TED Talks.

Could The Hidden Pleasures of Life, with its heady mix of psychology and philosophy, and it's hyper-social, pop-up-chat wrapping, represent the vanguard?