Voices and Ideas

2015 ΦBK Book Award Winners Announced

By Laura Hartnett

The Phi Beta Kappa Society is proud to announce the winning titles for the 2015 Phi Beta Kappa Book Awards. The Christian Gauss Award, Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science, and Ralph Waldo Emerson Award each carry a $10,000 prize. The awards will be presented to the authors at a gala dinner on December 4, 2015 in Washington, D.C., at the Library of Congress Madison Hall.

This year’s winners, in the order the awards were established, are:

The Christian Gauss Award

Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities by James Turner (Princeton University Press, 2014)

The word “philology” for centuries was nearly synonymous with humanistic intellectual life, encompassing not only the study of Greek and Roman literature and the Bible, but also other studies of language, literature, history, culture, art and more. In Philology, the first history of Western Humanistic learning published in English, James Turner tells the fascinating and forgotten story of how the study of languages and texts led to the modern humanities and the modern university.

One Phi Beta Kappa Selection Panel member said, “I knew that this would be an excellent book, learned and informative. I didn’t realize it would be an extraordinary book, beautifully written. Turner manages a breathtaking sweep of history, never losing sight of his argument or the stakes.  Who knew that the subject of polymathic word-love could be such a page-turner, full not only of erudition, but insights, zingers, and apercus.”

The Christian Gauss Award is offered for books in the field of literary scholarship or criticism. The prize was established in 1950 to honor the late Christian Gauss, the distinguished Princeton University scholar, teacher, and dean who also served as President of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. Previous award winners include books written by eminent authors such as Harold Bloom, Christopher Benfey, Marjorie Garber, and Claudia Johnson.

The Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science

Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle by Douglas J. Emlen (Henry Holt and Co., 2014)

Animal Weapons is the story behind the incredible weapons we see in the animal world and what they can tell us about the way humans develop and protect ourselves. Douglas Emlen takes the reader outside the lab and deep into the forests and jungles of the world to explain the processes behind the most extreme of animal weapons. Emlen uses the evolution of these animal weapons to draw parallels to the way humans develop and employ their own weapons. Animal Weapons analyzes the role of camouflage, the evolution of the rifle, the structures human populations have built across different regions and eras to protect their homes and communities among many other examples. The book has many stunning illustrations of these concepts at work. Animal Weapons brings the reader the complete story of how weapons reach their most outsized, dramatic potential, and what the animal world can tell us about our own relationship with weapons.

One Phi Beta Kappa Selection Panel member said, “Lively, engrossing account of the arms races in animal evolution, development and ecology. Emlen is a natural storyteller and the book moves swiftly through different fields of science and military history.”

Since 1959, The Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science has recognized outstanding contributions by scientists to the literature of science. The intent of the award is to encourage literate and scholarly interpretations of the physical and biological sciences and mathematics. Other award winners include books written by notable scientists such as James Gleick, Brian Greene, Stephen Jay Gould, and Nate Silver.

The Ralph Waldo Emerson Award

The Parthenon Enigma: A New Understanding of the West’s Most Iconic Building and the People Who Made It by Joan Breton Connelly (Knopf, 2014)

Since the Enlightenment the Parthenon has been recognized as the definitive symbol of Western democratic values. The Parthenon Enigma challenges this conventional wisdom to present a revolutionary new view of this peerless building. Looking back in time to trace the Parthenon’s story, Connelly finds its true meaning in a vast web of continual cultic observances and a unique mythic identity, in which democracy in our sense of the word would have been inconceivable. Marshaling a breathtaking range of textual and visual evidence, Connelly weaves it all into a thrilling narrative that brings the distant past to life.

One Phi Beta Kappa Selection Panel member said, “The writing is sophisticated but intelligible; [Connelly] writes for the scholar but makes it possible for a general audience to follow her. The Parthenon Enigma embeds the important symbol of Athens, of Ancient Greece, of Western Civilization in crucial context, considering it from all angles, literally and metaphorically.”

Established in 1960, The Ralph Waldo Emerson Award honors scholarly studies that contribute significantly to interpretations of the intellectual and cultural condition of humanity, including works in the fields of history, philosophy and religion as well as such fields as anthropology and the social sciences. Previous award winners include books written by eminent authors such as Timothy Snyder, Jill Lepore, David Levering Lewis, and Timothy Egan.

Laura Hartnett is coordinator of administraton for the Phi Beta Kappa Society.

(Posted on 10/2/2015 )