C, John Diamond's harrowing but vigorous account of his battle with cancer, is tipped to win the pounds 30,000 award, which has been funded anonymously by a retired British businessman. The judging panel, chaired by the journalist and broadcaster James Naughtie, also includes Cherie Booth, top-flight barrister and Downing Street spouse.
Stuart Proffitt, the publisher of Penguin Press who chairs the award's steering committee, says the organisers have tried to create a collective judging process to avoid public disputes. "With some other prizes, not every judge has read every word of every book," Mr Proffitt commented.
In spite of the presence of the biologist Lewis Wolpert among the judges, the boom in popular science goes unrecognised, although new works by Richard Dawkins and Edward O Wilson did make the long list of 21.
The rest of the shortlist has a powerful sense of the end of an era - and even of a millennium. Ian Kershaw's magisterial biography of Hitler until 1936, Hubris (Allen Lane), joins Anthony Beevor's horrifically gripping narrative of the Battle of Stalingrad (Penguin) to recall the genocidal traumas of the century about to close. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by the distinguished Harvard historian David Landes (Little, Brown) records and celebrates the triumph of liberal capitalism in the Anglo-Saxon mould.
Richard Holmes's account of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's later life, Darker Visions (HarperCollins), carries the torch for classic literary biography, while the most controversial contender is Ann Wroe's Pilate (Cape), which blends historical inquiry with quasi-novelistic speculations.
When NCR withdrew its sponsorship in 1997, a gap was left in the literary calendar for a high-profile contest pitching memoir, biography, history, science and politics into the same award-winning arena. The Samuel Johnson Prize will start the process of giving the finest non-fiction authors the annual jamboree they deserve.Reuse content