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Life of Shakespeare wins Brit nonfiction prize

Shapiro awarded $55,000 Samuel Johnson Prize for partial biography
/ Source: The Associated Press

An account of a pivotal year in English literature and history was named winner of Britain's most lucrative nonfiction book prize Wednesday.

James Shapiro's "1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare" was awarded the $55,000 Samuel Johnson Prize.

Shapiro's victory denied humorist Alan Bennett, nominated for his memoir, "Untold Stories," which would have added another honor to add to the six Tony Awards won Sunday night by his play, "The History Boys."

Shapiro, a professor of English at Columbia University, said he was inspired in part by the film "Shakespeare in Love" to write a "partial biography" of the Bard and his times. His book looks at the year Shakespeare turned 35, wrote "Henry V" and "As You Like It" and produced the first draft of "Hamlet," widely regarded as his greatest play.

Scientist Robert Winston, who chaired the judging panel, praised "the sheer pleasure and unusual insight into the kind of person Shakespeare was and what he wrote."

Named in honor of the 18th-century essayist and lexicographer, the Samuel Johnson Prize is open to English-language books in the areas of current affairs, history, politics, science, sport, travel, biography, autobiography and the arts.

Besides Shapiro and Bennett, the shortlisted titles were Tom Reiss' "The Orientalist," a biography of flamboyant 20th-century author-adventurer Lev Nussimbaum; Tony Judt's history of modern Europe, "Postwar"; "The Sale of the King's Goods," Jerry Brotton's look at King Charles I's art collection; and "Bad Faith," Carmen Callil's book about French Nazi collaborator Louis Darquier.