Katherine Rundell has won the £50,000 Baillie Gifford prize for non-fiction for her book about the poet John Donne, described by the judges as a “‘glorious celebration” of his work and life.
Rundell, who is best known for her children’s books, has said Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne took her 10 years and three drafts to write. It showcases the myriad lives of Donne, who, as well as being a renowned poet was a scholar of law, a sea adventurer, an MP, a priest, and the dean of St Paul’s Cathedral during his life.
Chair of judges Caroline Sanderson, said she and her fellow judges had unanimously agreed on Super-Infinite as the winner of the prize. “Exquisitely rendered, its passion, playfulness and sparkling prose seduced all of us,” she said. “Rundell makes an irresistible case for Donne’s work to be widely read 400 years later, for all the electric joy and love it expresses. And in so doing, she gives us a myriad reasons why poetry – why the arts – matter.”
Sanderson was joined on the judging panel by writer and science journalist Laura Spinney; critic and writer for the Observer Rachel Cooke; BBC journalist and presenter Clive Myrie; author and New Yorker writer Samanth Subramanian and critic and broadcaster Georgina Godwin.
Sanderson called Rundell’s writing “absolutely exquisite”, adding: “It’s interesting that Katherine Rundell is an award-winning children’s writer, because there’s a playfulness to her language and an ability to conjure up really concrete images, which I think is part of the craft of being an exceptional children’s writer.”
Rundell is a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, where she works on Renaissance literature. Her 2013 children’s book Rooftoppers won the Waterstones children’s book prize and she won the Costa children’s book prize for the novel The Explorer.
In 2022, as well as Super-Infinite, two other books by Rundell were published: The Golden Mole: and Other Living Treasure, a collection about the lives of some of the Earth’s most astounding animals, illustrated by Talya Baldwin, and children’s picture book The Zebra’s Great Escape, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie.
Reviewing Super-Infinite in the Guardian, Lara Feigel said that Rundell “brings a zest for imaginative speculation” into the gaps in Donne’s biography. She added: “To read Donne is to grapple with a vision of the eternal that is startlingly reinvented in the here and now, and Rundell captures this vision alive in all its power, eloquence and strangeness.”
Super-Infinite was one of five books on this year’s shortlist by women. The others were Caroline Elkins’ Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire; Sally Hayden’s My Fourth Time, We Drowned; Anna Keay’s The Restless Republic: Britain Without a Crown; and Polly Morland’s A Fortunate Woman: A Country Doctor’s Story. The sixth book was Jonathan Freedland’s The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World.
Last year’s winner was Patrick Radden Keefe for Empire of Pain, an investigation of the Sackler family and its role in the opioid crisis.