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Nonfiction longlist for the National Book Award

Walter Isaacson’s study of digital innovators and E.O. Wilson’s reflections on human existence are among the books on the longlist for the National Book Award in nonfiction, announced this morning.

Given the elastic dimensions of the category (anything nonfiction) and the number of submissions (almost 500), the NBA judges still managed to come up with a group of 10 contenders that includes only one woman: New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast. (She’s also the first cartoonist to come this close to a National Book Award in one of the adult categories.)

Of course, it’s statistically possible to flip a coin and get heads nine times out of 10, and I’m loath to criticize these distinguished judges. Their workload is Sisyphean, the honor is fleeting, the pay is minuscule, and they have to put up with self-righteous harping from people like me. But it’s difficult to imagine a literary jury in this day and age looking over such a long, masculine list without wondering if maybe they’d missed something.

Objective-sounding words like “quality,” “depth” and “significance” were, for centuries, defined in ways that privileged certain kinds of writing (and excluded certain kinds of authors). It’s no coincidence that great books are described as “seminal” instead of “ovular.” Publishing has come a long way, but as the sharp-eyed readers at VIDA keep reminding us, we have a long way to go.

In February, the National Book Foundation, which administers these annual awards, published a study showing that over the past 60 years, the number of women NBA finalists and winners has steadily increased every decade until they overtook men in the 2010s. Unfortunately, today’s nonfiction longlist — what we might call the Y-list — looks like a return to the good old days.

The 10 books are:

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” (Bloomsbury), by Roz Chast.

“The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic” (Knopf), by John Demos.

“No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes” (Metropolitan), by Anand Gopal.

“The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), by Nigel Hamilton.

“The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution” (Simon & Schuster), by Walter Isaacson. (Forthcoming Oct. 7.)

“Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh” (Norton), by John Lahr. (Forthcoming Sept. 22.)

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China” (FSG), by Evan Osnos.

When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944″ (Little, Brown), by Ronald C. Rosbottom.

“Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic” (Norton), by Matthew Stewart.

“The Meaning of Human Existence” (Liveright/Norton), by Edward O. Wilson. (Forthcoming Oct 6.)

This longlist will be trimmed to five finalists on Oct. 15.

The judges for this year’s NBA Nonfiction Prize are Robert Atwan, Gretel Ehrlich, Tom Reiss, Ruth J. Simmons and Alan Taylor.

The NBA longlists for young people’s literature and poetry were announced earlier this week. The longlist for fiction will be released tomorrow. All four winners will be announced on Nov. 19 at a ceremony in New York.

Books written by U.S. citizens and published in the United States from Dec. 1, 2013, to Nov. 30, 2014, are eligible for this year’s National Book Awards.