Awarding a books prize without doing the reading

The judges forgot the new book on infectious diseases - then rewarded a similar, lesser entry, says Tom Wilkie
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The Independent Online
Imagine, if you will, that you have just won the Pulitzer Prize in the United States for your book on "new" infectious diseases: Aids, Ebola, Marburg, Lyme's disease, Legionnaire's, virulent tuberculosis, and so on. Your book is a definitive work of reference, but a rattling good read at the same time. It spent two months in the American best-seller lists and you know that it caught the attention of the White House and changed the health policy of the US government.

Last September you launched your book in Britain at the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Every daily newspaper science correspondent met you then and all of them were profoundly impressed. Your book received rave reviews in the British press and extracts were serialised in a Sunday newspaper.

Last night, Britain's Science Book Prize - the equivalent of the Booker for science writing and worth pounds 10,000 - went to the author of a book on "new" infectious diseases: Aids, Ebola, Marburg, Lyme's Disease, Legionnaire's, virulent tuberculosis, and so on. But not to you. The winning book has barely been mentioned in the British daily press. The judges for the 1996 Rhone-Poulenc prize for Science Books never even considered your book.

The book that so impressed the White House, the Pulitzer judges, and science writers in Britain is The Coming Plague by a feisty American woman, Laurie Garrett; the book that last night won the premier award for science books in Britain is Plague's Progress by another American author, Arno Karlen.

Shortly after Ms Garrett's book came out, her original UK publishers, Virago, went through an episode of internal bloodletting in the course of which no one thought to enter her book for the prize. And no one in the judging panel itself, or the administration of the prize, thought to bring her book to the judges' attention.

The Coming Plague has a dramatic intensity and immediacy, combined with monumental scientific detail and meticulous attention to factual accuracy. The reader's attention is captured and sustained from the first words of the first chapter: "Karl Johnson fervently hoped that if this disease didn't kill him soon, somebody would shoot him and put him out of his misery. The word 'agony' wasn't strong enough. He was in hell." The first chapter of Plague's Progress opens in more pedestrian vein: "This book is about new plagues, survival, and the dance of mutual adaptation we carry on with our microbial fellow travellers."

The omission of Ms Garrett's book even from consideration is a scandal of greater proportion than anything that has happened at the Booker. If the judges fluffed this one, do the Science Book Prizes themselves have a future?

'The Coming Plague' by Laurie Garrett, just published in paperback by Penguin, pounds 12.50.

'Plague's Progress' by Arno Karlen, published by Victor Gollancz, pounds 16.99.

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