LONDON, June 14 (Reuters Life!) - Books on the lives and times of Chinese leader Mao Zedong, German-Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck and Italian artist and renegade Caravaggio are in the running for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction.
Also on the six-strong shortlist for the annual award are works about American loyalists who left the country after the British evacuation of 1783, the English civil war and the fact that things may actually be getting better.
"This year's shortlist ... is a tribute to the breadth and depth of non-fiction writing, a reflection of a remarkable publishing year in which more books have been considered for the prize than ever before," said author and journalist Ben Macintyre, head of the judges.
The prize, worth 20,000 pounds ($33,000) to the winner and sponsored by the BBC, will be announced on July 6.
It aims to reward the best of non-fiction and is open to authors of all non-fiction books in the areas of current affairs, history, politics, science, sport, travel, biography, autobiography and the arts.
On the 2011 shortlist, unveiled on Tuesday, was "Mao's Great Famine" by Frank Dikoetter, about the 1958 Great Leap Forward campaign to catapult China to prosperity, which ended in a three-year famine in which an estimated 30 million people starved to death.
"Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane" by Andrew Graham Dixon combines the story of the artist's "dark and dangerous" life with an examination of his famous paintings.
"Liberty's Exiles: The Loss of America and the Remaking of the British Empire" by Maya Jasanoff follows some of the 60,000 or so loyalists who left their homes at the end of the American Revolution to start new lives across the British Empire.
"The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves" by Matt Ridley, the author of "Genome" and "Nature via Nurture," investigates human progress and seeks to disprove "the prevailing pessimism of our age."
"Bismarck: A Life" by Jonathan Steinberg uses diaries and letters of the leader's contemporaries to explore a man "who never said a dull thing or wrote a slack sentence."
And "Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War" by John Stubbs examines the royalist supporters during the 17th century conflict. (Reporting by Mike Collett-White; editing by Patricia Reaney)