Steve Silberman has been awarded the £20,000 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction for Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter About People Who Think Differently (Allen & Unwin).
The prize was awarded at a ceremony at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) yesterday evening (2nd November). Silberman's book is understood to have won out over Jonathan Bate's biography of Ted Hughes (William Collins) after a prolongued tussle among the judges.
The win meant victory for independent Atlantic books, which launched a new Allen & Unwin imprint this summer, after Australian publisher Allen & Unwin became the company's majority shareholder last year. Atlantic had three titles on the six-strong shortlist.
Described as a “tour de force of archival, journalistic and scientific research,” Neutrotribes chronicles the history of societal attitudes and responses to autism. From the clinicians who discovered it, to the MMR vaccine controversy and today’s "neurodiversity" movement, Silberman - an investigative reporter - charts the journey of this complex disorder and seeks to answer the question of why there has been a massive rise in diagnoses.
The £20,000 prize was presented to Silberman by historian Anne Applebaum, who chaired this year’s judging panel. Applebaum said: “Silberman’s ground-breaking archival research lays out the intellectual history of the condition we now call 'autism,' tracing the evolution of the diagnosis from Nazi Vienna up until the present day, explaining how political and social context shaped scientific and medical perspectives.Neurotribes is tour de force of archival, journalistic and scientific research, both scholarly and widely accessible.”
Silberman with his prize-winning book Neurotribes.
Fellow judge Emma Duncan, editor of Intelligent Life, said she had never before read a science book that made her cry, but that this one had done so. "We [the judges] really loved this book, powered by the deeply held belief that we must stop drawing lines between people [as to who is "normal" and who not so]," she said. "It's a really important book and is going to change the way we think about humanity."
Atlantic c.e.o. Will Atkinson, delighted with the win, told The Bookseller: "This is an important book; it will change people's lives, it will change people's opinions. It's a book with deep compassion." Neurotribes will continue to be published in its £16.99 trade paperback format, with the publisher ordering a "relatively modest" 6,000-copy reprint "to begin with - we'll be reprinting for the next 30 years," said Atkinson.
Bea Carvalho of the Waterstones non-fiction buying team, present at the award ceremony, said she was "absolutely thrilled that winning the Samuel Johnson Prize will bring this important book to the attention of a much wider readership", calling the win "thoroughly deserved."
The Samuel Johnson Prize is currently searching for a new sponsor. However the dinner and awards ceremony for this year's event were sponsored by the Blavatnik Family Foundation, a philanthropic foundation established by USSR-born billionaire Leonard Blavatnik. Asked about future sponsorship prospects, prize director Toby Mundy said: "We have a number of incredibly encouraging conversations underway. I've been working on it very hard. I'm optimistic that the prize will go on and prosper."
Also judging this year's award were New Scientist editor Sumit Paul-Choudhury, director of China centre at Oxford University, Professor Rana Mitter, and former controller of film and drama and head of Film 4, Tessa Ross.
On the full shortlist, Neurotribes was joined by two other titles published by indie publisher Atlantic Books - The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq by Emma Sky and This Divided Island by Samanth Subramanian. The other three titles in contention were Jonathan Bate’s Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life (4th Estate), Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks (Hamish Hamilton) and Laurence Scott’s The Four-Dimensional Human (William Heinemann).