The Phi Beta Kappa Society is pleased to announce the winners of the Society’s annual book awards, The Christian Gauss Award, The Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science, and The Ralph Waldo Emerson Award. Each award carries a $10,000 prize.  The winners were selected from five short listed titles in each category.  The Society will honor their authors at a gala dinner on December 2, 2016 in Washington, DC, at The National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Watch our live Q&A with the authors and emcee Timothy Egan on Facebook.


​The Poetry of John Milton by Gordon Teskey (Harvard University Press)

About the Book
"John Milton is regarded as the greatest English poet after Shakespeare. Yet for sublimity and philosophical grandeur, Milton stands almost alone in world literature. His peers are Homer, Virgil, Dante, Wordsworth, and Goethe: poets who achieve a total ethical and spiritual vision of the world. In this panoramic interpretation, the distinguished Milton scholar Gordon Teskey shows how the poet’s changing commitments are subordinated to an aesthetic that joins beauty to truth and value to ethics. The art of poetry is rediscovered by Milton as a way of thinking in the world as it is, and for the world as it can be.

Milton’s early poems include the heroic Nativity Ode; the seductive paired poems “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso”; the mythological pageant Comus, with its comically diabolical enchanter and its serious debate on the human use of nature; and “Lycidas,” perhaps the greatest short poem in English and a prophecy of vast human displacements in the modern world. Teskey follows Milton’s creative development in three phases, from the idealistic transcendence of the poems written in his twenties to the political engagement of the gritty, hard-hitting poems of his middle years. The third phase is that of “transcendental engagement,” in the heaven-storming epic Paradise Lost, and the great works that followed it: the intense intellectual debate Paradise Regained, and the tragedy Samson Agonistes."

About the Author

Gordon Teskey is Professor of English at Harvard University, A Guggenheim Fellow, and editor of the Norton Critical Edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Praise from our Selection Panel
"Teskey is master of his material.  He has studied Milton’s prose to good purpose, writing with ease and elegance.  He likes Milton’s strong cadences and flexible lexicon and emulates them in modern syntax.  His book enlightens and enthuses.  He has confidence in his readers and treats them generously; when matters get weighty, he carries them."


"
This book was a revelation and a surprise for me.  I was initially a bit intimidated by its sheer magnitude, but from the first page on, I was compelled by its readability and by its determination to do something wonderful and valuable and increasingly rare: to engage in “straight” literary criticism, to read and assess Milton without agendas, axes to grind, as a poet and as a gorgeous stylist."


The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, & Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History by Thor Hanson (Basic Books)

About the Book
"We live in a world of seeds. From our morning toast to the cotton in our clothes, they are quite literally the stuff and staff of life, supporting diets, economies, and civilizations around the globe. Just as the search for nutmeg and the humble peppercorn drove the Age of Discovery, so did coffee beans help fuel the Enlightenment, and cottonseed help spark the Industrial Revolution. And from the Fall of Rome to the Arab Spring, the fate of nations continues to hinge on the seeds of a Middle Eastern grass known as wheat.

In nature and in culture, seeds are fundamental—objects of beauty, evolutionary wonder, and simple fascination. How many times has a child dropped the winged pip of a maple, marveling as it spirals its way down to the ground, or relished the way a gust of wind(or a stout breath) can send a dandelion's feathery flotilla skyward? Yet despite their importance, seeds are often seen as a commonplace, their extraordinary natural and human histories overlooked. Thanks to Thor Hanson and this stunning new book, they can be overlooked no more.

What makes The Triumph of Seeds remarkable is not just that it is informative, humane, hilarious, and even moving, just as what makes seeds remarkable is not simply their fundamental importance to life. In both cases, it is their sheer vitality and the delight that we can take in their existence—the opportunity to experience, as Hanson puts it, "the simple joy of seeing something beautiful, doing what it is meant to do." Spanning the globe from the Raccoon Shack—Hanson's backyard writing hideout-cum-laboratory—to the coffee shops of Seattle, from gardens and flower patches to the spice routes of Kerala, this is a book of knowledge, adventure, and wonder, spun by an award-winning writer with both the charm of a fireside story-teller and the hard-won expertise of a field biologist. A worthy heir to the grand tradition of Aldo Leopold and Bernd Heinrich, The Triumph of Seeds takes us on a fascinating scientific adventure through the wild and beautiful world of seeds. It is essential reading for anyone who loves to see a plant grow."

About the Author
Thor Hanson is a conservation biologist, Guggenheim Fellow, Switzer Environmental Fellow, and winner of the John Burrough Medal for excellence in nature writing and natural history. The author of Feathers and The Impenetrable Forest, Hanson lives with his wife and son on an island in Washington State.

Praise from our Selection Panel
"
Hanson educates the reader about many important features of seeds – their evolutionary advantages, their historical and continuing importance to human development, and their tactics for protection and dispersal – in a way that keeps the reader engaged while clearly explaining the science.  He has a special talent for finding compelling examples and stories to make his points.   I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book.  The range of examples and topics he was able to cover so well in a relatively short work particularly impressed me."

"
I would not have guessed this subject would be so interesting, but the major topics of the book (seeds as food and their impact on human development and culture, the origin of seeds and how they make new plants, seeds’ long-term viability, seed transport mechanisms) are all made fascinating by Hanson’s comfortable, conversational, and friendly writing style.  He is able to convey complex concepts of botany in a highly accessible way, and is quite successful at avoiding jargon.  His introduction of other scientists and their work as he researched the topics in the book is highly engaging.  He portrays them as real people with depth and humor.  Both his passion about the subject, and the obvious passion of each of the people who tell the story through the book contribute to the book’s readability."


The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe by E.M. Rose (Oxford University Press)

About the Book
"In 1144, the mutilated body of William of Norwich, a young apprentice leatherworker, was found abandoned outside the city's walls. The boy bore disturbing signs of torture, and a story spread that it was a ritual murder, performed by Jews in imitation of the Crucifixion as a mockery of Christianity. The outline of William's tale eventually gained currency far beyond Norwich, and the idea that Jews engaged in ritual murder became firmly rooted in the European imagination.

E.M. Rose's engaging book delves into the story of William's murder and the notorious trial that followed to uncover the origin of the ritual murder accusation - known as the "blood libel" - in western Europe in the Middle Ages. Focusing on the specific historical context - 12th-century ecclesiastical politics, the position of Jews in England, the Second Crusade, and the cult of saints - and suspensefully unraveling the facts of the case, Rose makes a powerful argument for why the Norwich Jews (and particularly one Jewish banker) were accused of killing the youth, and how the malevolent blood libel accusation managed to take hold. She also considers four "copycat" cases, in which Jews were similarly blamed for the death of young Christians, and traces the adaptations of the story over time.

In the centuries after its appearance, the ritual murder accusation provoked instances of torture, death and expulsion of thousands of Jews and the extermination of hundreds of communities. Although no charge of ritual murder has withstood historical scrutiny, the concept of the blood libel is so emotionally charged and deeply rooted in cultural memory that it endures even today. Rose's groundbreaking work, driven by fascinating characters, a gripping narrative, and impressive scholarship, provides clear answers as to why the blood libel emerged when it did and how it was able to gain such widespread acceptance, laying the foundations for enduring antisemitic myths that continue to the present."

About the Author
E.M. Rose is a historian who has taught at Johns Hopkins University, Villanova University, Princeton University, Rutgers University, and Baruch/CUNY.

Praise from our Selection Panel
"[The book's]
 great contributions are its discovery of the actual likely textual history of the legend of little William of Norwich, and its careful description of what happened to the legend as it traveled through Europe in later years. Only careful scholarship and careful reading of documents could produce the sequence of events in which a later legal case determined the shape of an allegedly earlier crime and its narrative.  The real origin of the bloodthirsty Prioress's tale of little Hugh of Lincoln in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is now fully revealed to us.  Also, the social and political uses of this narrative in later times and places are now greatly clarified, particularly the fact that later uses tended to be as politically motivated as was the story's origin."

"
I especially like the ways in which the author makes her case through the patient accumulation of historical detail and judicious weighing of the available evidence, without ever being strident.  (The Conclusion, for example, is a remarkable example of careful thinking and calibrated writing that I will use with some of my students.) She wears her learning lightly, but a deep sense of the era is certainly present on nearly every page.  In my view, this book is a model of thoroughgoing historical scholarship presented to a general audience and should be studied by scholars who wish to bring the humanities to the public square (to use the NEH’s phrase)."  

Love of learning is the guide of life.