In 1919, Janet Coats created the The James Tait Black Memorial Prize in memory of her late husband, a publisher. This is also one of the most prestigious awards in the English literary world. Every year, the University of Edinburgh’s School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures delegates a group of postgraduate students and academics who diligently sift through copious amounts of the best books from the previous year (over 400 to be precise). The aim, naturally, is to strike literary gold. From there, the choices are narrowed down to a shortlist until one book is chosen for each category — fiction, biography, and drama (the category of the latter was inaugurated in 2003).
The highly acclaimed James Shapiro — Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University — took the crown for best biography with 1606: Shakespeare And The Year Of Lear (Faber & Faber). This world-renowned Shakespeare expert transports readers back to 1606, that all-important year when Macbeth, King Lear, and Antony and Cleopatra came to prominence. Shapiro examines how Britain’s beloved Bard divulges key pieces of information about the world around him during the time in which his plays were written. Shapiro joins the list of prominent writers who hold the same title, such as Martin Amis, Quentin Bell, Lytton Strachey, Claire Tomalin, and Kathryn Hughes (to name a few).
Unsurprisingly, wizard of words and leading author, journalist, and critic Benjamin Markovits won the fiction category with You Don’t Have To Live Like This (Faber & Faber). This magnetic book is based in contemporary Detroit and draws upon critical events in history, such as the financial crash and the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Markovits, (who also happens to be an ex-professional basketball player) successfully hooks readers with sharp language and a refreshingly honest social commentary, which mirrors the flawed idealism of modern America. This multi-faceted enigma is now on the list of works by highly reputable writers to win this award such as DH Lawrence, Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan, Muriel Spark, and Evelyn Waugh.
The prizes were presented by broadcaster Sally Magnusson at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. The winners of the drama category will be announced later this week.