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2023 Chautauqua Prize Winner
Chautauqua Institution has announced The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human (Scribner) by Siddhartha Mukherjee as the 2023 winner of The Chautauqua Prize.
Awarded annually since 2012, The Chautauqua Prize celebrates a book of fiction or literary/narrative nonfiction that provides a richly rewarding reading experience and to honor the author for a significant contribution to the literary arts. As author of this year’s winning book, Mukherjee receives $7,500, and will be presented with the Prize during a celebratory event and public reading at 5 p.m. EDT Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Chautauqua’s Hall of Philosophy.
Mukherjee’s book, the first Prize winner so extensively dedicated to the hard sciences, stands apart in the tradition of doctor-writers due to the poetic, almost cosmic tone of its language, said Sony Ton-Aime, the Michael I. Rudell Director of the Literary Arts at Chautauqua Institution.
“I have read authors who write about science with such verve and beautiful prose, and I have read scientists with deep command and knowledge on their subject matters, but never have I seen the two collide so well,” Ton-Aime said. “Siddhartha Mukherjee has made centuries of serious scientific knowledge accessible to everyone through lively and masterful prose. This makes The Song of the Cell the perfect book to win the Prize this year, as it undoubtedly is a richly rewarding reading experience and is a significant contribution to our world that will stand for ages.”
The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human begins in the late 1600s, when the Pulitzer Prize-winning author introduces us to English polymath Robert Hooke and Dutch cloth merchant Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. The two men looked down their handmade microscopes and saw something that introduced a radical concept that altered biology and medicine forever. It was the fact that complex living organisms are assemblages of tiny, self-contained, self-regulating units — “cells,” Hooke christened them — that build our organs, our physiology and our selves. The Song of the Cell tells the story of how scientists discovered cells, began to understand them, and are now using that knowledge to create new humans. In his exploration — both panoramic and intimate — of what it means to be human, Mukherjee uses his expertise to make “a very important and complex topic accessible,” one Prize reader said. “Mukherjee is a phenomenal writer and storyteller,” another shared, who, in his “wonderful book,” “… has a way of explaining concepts in an interesting way that entices one to keep reading.”
Since first appearing on bookshelves in October 2022, The Song of the Cell has been named a New York Times Notable Book and a “Best Book of the Year” by publications and organizations as diverse as The Economist, Oprah Daily, BookPage, Book Riot and the New York Public Library, among others. It was the winner of the 2023 PROSE Award for Excellence in Biological and Life Sciences from the Association of American Publishers. Since 1976, the PROSE Awards have recognized best-in-class scholarly publications and publishers who produce books, journals, and digital products of extraordinary merit that make a significant contribution to a field of study.
For The Song of the Cell to be lauded in critical, academic, and mainstream circles alike, noted Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill, indicates both the book’s depth and breadth, and its author’s mastery of his craft.
“Dr. Mukherjee has spent his medical career probing further and further the question of our most minuscule components, and how they impact the full scope of our bodies and our being. It is work that is both microscopic and sweeping; infinitesimal and magnificently infinite,” Hill said. “Similarly, his literary career is a natural extension of this path. Dr. Mukherjee’s writing is at once academic and accessible. Beyond that, he makes the complex compelling, conveying the hard science of the cellular into grand, almost mythic prose that encompasses the largest questions of philosophy and humanity. With this approach, he inspires and empowers his readers toward a greater understanding of the science of our lives.”
Siddhartha Mukherjee is the author of The Gene: An Intimate History, a No. 1 New York Times bestseller; The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction; and The Laws of Medicine. He is editor of The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013. Mukherjee is an associate professor of medicine at Columbia University and a cancer physician and researcher. A Rhodes scholar, he graduated from Stanford University, University of Oxford, and Harvard Medical School. Widely published, his articles have appeared in journals and periodicals that include Nature, the New England Journal of Medicine, Cell, The New York Times Magazine, and The New Yorker.
The Chautauqua Prize, this year awarded for the 12th time, has been inspired since its inception by the late literary and entertainment industry attorney Michael I. Rudell, and his wife, Alice. Previous winners include The Sojourn, by Andrew Krivak (2012); Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, by Timothy Egan (2013); My Foreign Cities, by Elizabeth Scarboro (2014); Redeployment, by Phil Klay (2015); Off the Radar, by Cyrus Copeland (2016); The Fortunes, by Peter Ho Davies (2017); The Fact of a Body, by Alex Marzano-Lesnevich (2018); All the Names They Used for God, by Anjali Sachdeva (2019); Out of Darkness, Shining Light, by Petina Gappah (2020); Having and Being Had, by Eula Biss (2021); and All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days, by Rebecca Donner (2022).
Winners of The Chautauqua Prize are noteworthy for their capacity to open inquiry and create an inviting space for conversation among many different kinds of readers, making the books an ideal vehicle to engage in Chautauqua Institution’s historic tradition of reading and discussion in community. Chautauqua’s other annual literary award, the Chautauqua Janus Prize, celebrates experimental writers who have not yet published a book. Taken together, these prizes ensure that both tradition and innovation live at the heart of a Chautauqua reader’s life of learning.
Details on The Chautauqua Prize are available online at prize.chq.org. Books published in 2023 will be accepted as submissions for the 2024 Prize beginning in September 2023.