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Judge Not Lest You Be Judged 2 min read

Judge Not Lest You Be Judged

Ed Yong talks about what it's like to judge a Pulitzer Prize.

By Cary Littlejohn

I was drawn into this newsletter post from Ed Yong where he described his experience as a judge for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction books.

The Ed’s Up - On Judging a Pulitzer
Last summer, I agreed to serve on the jury for the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction—a group of five writers tasked with selecting the best nonfiction…

I haven't posted recently because I, too, have been consumed with contest judging. It's hardly the Pulitzers, but that surely didn't stop those applying for a chance to be deemed the winner.

Yong captured well the overwhelming feeling that sets in when you have a stack of submissions:

When you’re searching for excellence, even books you might have enjoyed under normal circumstances start looking mediocre, and the process quickly becomes a slog that drains the joy from reading.

I surely wasn't as busy as he and his fellow judges were; he said they judged more than 400 books, which honestly feels like it ought to be a full-time job if it wasn't. I had a meager 80+ submissions to consider, but that feeling of the joy of reading the thing being sapped from you was all too real.

Yong goes on to pry back the curtains of the Pulitzer's process, which is interesting in its own right. But then he also summarizes and makes a case for the winner, A Day in the Life of Abed Salama by Nathan Thrall. It sounds quite compelling:

In his book, the eponymous protagonist Abed Salama learns that the school bus carrying his five-year-old son, Milad, has crashed in the outskirts of Jerusalem. As Salama tries to find his son, he is stymied at every turn because he is Palestinian. In recounting this desperate quest, Thrall, who is a Jewish American journalist based in Jerusalem, offers an incredibly intimate portrait of life under occupation, and the challenges that Palestinians face during both the mundanities of daily life and the heightened moments of tragedy.

I respected Yong's willingness to lay bare some of his thinking after he made the recommendation that helped, in part, the book to be recognized.

While considering the book, I asked myself if I was rating it highly only because it was clearly relevant to the ongoing genocide in Gaza. To an extent, no: Even if the topic wasn’t extremely topical, ADITLOAS would still be one of the most finely reported and invaluably humane books of the year. But in a way, yes: Our task was to find the greatest books, and one that deeply illuminates a generation-defining moral catastrophe surely counts. If ADITLOAS had it come out a year earlier, it would still have been a masterpiece. That it came out now makes it an indispensable one. I’m glad that the Pulitzer Board agreed. They made a bold choice and, I think, the correct one.

I found it all too easy to wonder about how I was judging various pieces, how the timeliness of their subject matter influenced my decision, if at all, and whether it should (or shouldn't). It's a weird position to be given the power to judge after it seems so easy to do so in everyday life.

Yong's description of it was characteristically thoughtful and nuanced, and I'm glad he decided to share, both his experience and the recommendation.