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How to Judge the Booker Prize in a Pandemic


“That was the negative for me,” Child said about the PDFs. “I so much prefer an actual book.” He ended up reading them “lying on my sofa, staring at my laptop for six, eight, 10 hours at a time,” he said.

Sissay said lockdown, for all its problems, benefited the judges, since all their other plans were canceled, from book tours to broadcast jobs. “There was nothing to do but read,” he said. “There will never, ever, be a judging panel that has so much time to just focus on the books.”

Initially, the reading pile overwhelmed him more than the pandemic. “There was a point when I was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” he said. “It was just shock and overload.” But Sissay taught himself to read quickly — he would not reveal his method — and soon appreciated the distraction the books gave him.

None of the judges said the pandemic influenced the types of books they favored. “If I hadn’t been judging this, I’d probably have been reading murder stories,” Wilson said. “I’d have wanted some darkness where it was all wrapped up — some sense of closure. But with this I just enjoyed being taken to a different world every day, even if it had some darkness in it.”

Rahim agreed. “At a time when you couldn’t really see anyone, what I found great was being able to take a book every evening and get to know someone,” he said. “It was like a blind date: sometimes great, sometimes not so great, sometimes indifferent. It was replacement socializing.”

The judges’ monthly meetings continued on Zoom. Busby said she liked the glimpses into the other judges’ lives that came with it. “You can see who smokes,” she said with a laugh.

But she missed being in a room together, she said. “You can’t turn to someone and say, ‘What do you think?’”

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