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The Man Booker Prize at 50

The Man Booker Prize at 50

Why do we have a literary prize? Someone asked me just recently what the Man Booker Prize is for. What is its purpose?

My answer was that the prize is for readers. It is about celebrating great writers and brilliant books so that we can draw more and more readers into the wonder of literature and the joys of readership. It is a means of celebrating the creative act of storytelling, and those who take us into other worlds through their narrative gifts. A great book opens gates and challenges our thinking. Fine writers hold up a mirror to us and show us what we can be.

As a child I went to the library on my father’s hand every week. That special visit we took together created a thirst for books that has never been slaked. At home, I was the child on the floor in the corner glued to a storybook, nagged about going out to play by well-intentioned aunts who thought my brain would burst.

It was books that took me beyond the tenements of Glasgow’s Southside to the Canadian Green Gables of Ann, to the America of Little Women, on to ‘Middlemarch’ in the Midlands and then to Sartre’s Left Bank in Paris. Books can take us to places we might never enter and into the company of people we might otherwise never meet. It was reading Steinbeck that added fire to my class politics, Victor Hugo and Dostoevsky that stirred my heart for law and justice, and The Group and The Women’s Room that fed my feminism.

Readers of novels are not passive. The business of reading engages us in an imaginative process, which penetrates deep wells of our unconscious. The right book can be a liberator, a healing potion or a stimulant better than any drug. 

Championing the humanities and literature has become a vital challenge today. Recent education policy in the UK and the US has aggressively pushed STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) after taking fright at the growing ranks of exceptional Indian and Chinese science graduates. While it is right that science must be nurtured, both disciplines are crucial to our global wellbeing. It is through the humanities and great literature that we open ourselves to that which is other, and we can fully understand what it means to be human.

One of my delights about the work of the Booker Prize Foundation, which is responsible for the prize, is that we are also able to fund important literacy projects, especially in prisons where books can change lives, in deeply disadvantaged communities where children need additional support with their reading, and for adults who have never had the chance to acquire the skill of reading and have felt impoverished.

The Man Booker Prize is a banner for the power of books. It is a barometer of our creative vitality. In celebrating great writing in the English language, we celebrate the language itself. As the Man Booker prizewinning novelist Ben Okri wrote so poetically: “To fail to appreciate the master-dreamers of our times is a sign that we cannot see what is good for us, or what is good in us.”     

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, chair of the Booker Prize Foundation