Letter: Plagued by book prizes

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The Independent Online
Sir: If every established book prize should engender controversy, I suppose that the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science and the Science Museum should be grateful to Tom Wilkie (16 May) for his efforts to put the Rhone-Poulenc prize for Science Books in the Booker league. But he strains at a gnat.

Arno Karlen's Plague's Progress (to which the jury of which I was the chairman awarded this year's prize) and Laurie Garrett's The Coming Plague do cover similar ground, but Karlen's is by far the better book, not least in being half the length.

Nor does Karlen follow Garrett's recipe for lending drama to the text by beginning every other chapter with an account of a microbe-hunting hero in extremis in a hospital bed. More to the point (for a science book), many of Garrett's explanations of the surge of novel infections in recent decades rely on tendentiously over-sharp arguments by the likes of Paul Ehrlich.

My own guess is that if Virago had nominated Garrett, the jury would have only been confirmed in its belief that Karlen's book is at once a vivid and a balanced statement of an important issue which, in my judgement, Garrett has overwritten and overstated. Even so, it is a pity that Virago overlooked this year's competition.


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