October 27, 2009

On winning a book prize

After the American Century

Some readers of this blog already know that my 2006 book, Technology Matters: Questions to Live With, was selected as the winner of this year's Sally Hacker Prize by the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT). The award was handed over at the annual banquet of that association in Pittsburgh, October 17 amid what seemed to me to be wild cheering for at least 2 or 3 seconds.

In previous years the winners of various prizes each made a little speech, thanking friends, family, and fellow scholars for their support. We have all heard such speeches, and know why SHOT might think it a good idea not to have them. So I did not give a moving testimony or tell any humorous anecdotes, but simply stood to have my picture taken with the prize.

Getting rid of the other acceptance speeches was a good idea, but in my case, of course, it was not. I had many important ideas to communicate at just that time, and indeed the wine of the previous hours had enhanced my thinking considerably. I am only sorry that these deep insights into the nature and purpose of research and "the meaning of it all" did not get out, because these penetrating thoughts now seem to have evaporated.

Instead, I will merely note that the prize was given for a work published in the previous three years that best explains some aspects of the history of technology to a wider audience. The plaque abbreviates this to "the best popular book." While I was extremely pleased to have fooled the usually more alert jury and gotten this award, one now former friend dryly asserted that this was the prize for the "least unreadable academic book."

If any of my loyal readers are interested, Technology Matters is in paperback for only a few dollars more than it costs to download it in the format of Amazon's Kindle reader. There is also a strange French translation that eliminates most of the notes and some passages of the work, clearly in an attempt to make it even more popular and better suited for the general audience. A German translation has also appeared. This is much longer and seems more scholarly than my original. Indeed, it appears to be so much more profound and more heavily-footnoted in German that I am hoping it will win a prize as a work written not for the general public but for specialists.

Should it win in German, I will insist on giving the speech I have forgotten from the banquet in Pittsburgh.