2023 Book Awards

The Phi Beta Kappa Society is pleased to announce the winners of the Society’s three annual book awards. These $10,000 prizes are given to outstanding works of non-fiction that engage a wide audience with important ideas in science, history, and literature. 

This year the Society celebrated the 69th anniversary of the Phi Beta Kappa Book Awards. Beginning in 1954 with what is now the Christian Gauss Award, every year the Society has lauded the accomplishments of exceptional authors in the United States. The Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science and the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award were added in 1960 and 1961, respectively. For 2023, the Society honored Dennis Tyler, Jennifer Raff, and Deborah Cohen for their winning titles at the Book Awards Dinner on November 30.

The three winning titles are:

Disabilities of the Color Line: Redressing Antiblackness from Slavery to the Present by Dennis Tyler, recipient of the Christian Gauss Award. Established in honor of Christian Gauss, an influential teacher, scholar, and president of Phi Beta Kappa, the award recognizes outstanding books of literary criticism, including biography. 

From the publisher (NYU Press): Through both law and custom, the color line has cast Black people as innately disabled and thus unfit for freedom, incapable of self-governance, and contagious within the national body politic. Disabilities of the Color Line maintains that the Black literary tradition historically has inverted this casting by exposing the disablement of racism without disclaiming disability.

In place of a triumphalist narrative of overcoming where both disability and disablement alike are shunned, Dennis Tyler argues that Black authors and activists have consistently avowed what he calls the disabilities of the color line: the historical and ongoing anti-Black systems of division that maim, immobilize, and stigmatize Black people. In doing so, Tyler reveals how Black writers and activists such as David Walker, Henry Box Brown, William and Ellen Craft, Charles Chesnutt, James Weldon Johnson, and Mamie Till-Mobley have engaged in a politics and aesthetics of redress: modes of resistance that, in the pursuit of racial and disability justice, acknowledged the disabling violence perpetrated by anti-Black regimes in order to conceive or engender dynamic new worlds that account for people of all abilities. While some writers have affirmed disability to capture how their bodies, minds, and health have been made vulnerable to harm and impairment by the state and its citizens, others’ assertion of disability symbolizes a sense of community as well as a willingness to imagine and create a world distinct from the dominant social order.

Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas by Jennifer Raff, recipient of the Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science. This award recognizes superior contributions by scientists to the literature of science. 

From the publisher (Twelve): From celebrated anthropologist Jennifer Raff comes the untold story—and fascinating mystery—of how humans migrated to the Americas. Origin is the story of who the first peoples in the Americas were, how and why they made the crossing, how they dispersed south, and how they lived based on a new and powerful kind of evidence: their complete genomes. Origin provides an overview of these new histories throughout North and South America, and a glimpse into how the tools of genetics reveal details about human history and evolution.

20,000 years ago, people crossed a great land bridge from Siberia into Western Alaska and then dispersed southward into what is now called the Americas. Until we venture out to other worlds, this remains the last time our species has populated an entirely new place, and this event has been a subject of deep fascination and controversy. No written records—and scant archaeological evidence—exist to tell us what happened or how it took place. Many different models have been proposed to explain how the Americas were peopled and what happened in the thousands of years that followed.  A study of both past and present, Origin explores how genetics is currently being used to construct narratives that profoundly impact Indigenous peoples of the Americas. It serves as a primer for anyone interested in how genetics has become entangled with identity in the way that society addresses the question “Who is indigenous?”

Last Call at the Hotel Imperial: The Reporters Who Took On a World at War by Deborah Cohen, recipient of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award. This prize honors a scholarly study that contributes significantly to interpretations of the intellectual and cultural condition of humanity. 

From the publisher (Random House): They were an astonishing group: glamorous, gutsy, and irreverent to the bone. As cub reporters in the 1920s, they roamed across a war-ravaged world, sometimes perched atop mules on wooden saddles, sometimes gliding through countries in the splendor of a first-class sleeper car. While empires collapsed and fledgling democracies faltered, they chased deposed empresses, international financiers, and Balkan gun-runners, and then knocked back doubles late into the night.

Last Call at the Hotel Imperial tells the story of a group of American foreign correspondents who put the intellectual and cultural condition of humanity at the heart of their work: John Gunther, H. R. Knickerbocker, Vincent Sheean, and Dorothy Thompson. In those tumultuous years, they landed exclusive interviews with Hitler and Mussolini, Nehru and Gandhi, and helped shape what Americans knew about the world. Alongside these backstage glimpses into the halls of power, they left another equally incredible set of records. Living in the heady afterglow of Freud, they subjected themselves to frank, critical scrutiny and argued about love, war, sex, death, and everything in between.

Plunged into successive global crises, Gunther, Knickerbocker, Sheean, and Thompson could no longer separate themselves from the turmoil that surrounded them. To tell that story, they broke long-standing taboos. From their circle came not just the first modern account of illness in Gunther’s Death Be Not Proud—a memoir about his son’s death from cancer—but the first no-holds-barred chronicle of a marriage: Sheean’s Dorothy and Red, about Thompson’s fractious relationship with Sinclair Lewis.

Told with the immediacy of a conversation overheard, this revelatory book captures how the global upheavals of the twentieth century felt up close.

For more information on the winners, please visit the Phi Beta Kappa Book Award Winners page.