When someone is awarded the Nobel prize, the Nobel committee always gives a short description of their achievement.

This year, two prizes were awarded (for 2019 and 2018):

Peter Handke

“for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.”


Olga Tokarczuk

“for a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.”

I can make some sense of the description of Handke's achievement, but not of Tokarczuk's. Can someone explain it in layman's terms?

I can't make sense of terms like "encyclopedic passion". "Encyclopedic knowlegde" is a common phrase that I understand. Encyclopedias are the books where one finds the most knowledge. So this term makes sense to describe someone who has vast knowledge. But I do not understand the relationship between encylopedias and passion.

I also don't understand "crossing of boundaries as a form of life". Does she write about other forms of life than humans? Or is this a metaphor that only makes sense with some background knowledge? "Crossing of boundaries" makes some sense as a metaphor to me, but it is awfully nonspecific. Perhaps I'd understand it if I had read her books.

Please explain for a layman who is not well versed in abstract literature, but is excited about the Nobel prize and is interested in the getting to know the work of the prize recipients.

P.S. You can see all awards here. The vast majority have a clear and understandable description. I feel that this years' descriptions suddenly become much harder to understand.

  • Having thought about this and having read the translation of the same announcement into my native language (does not make much sense in exactly the same way as in English) I'm going to ask this question on English Language & Usage. I hope you don't mind if I refer to this question. If you do - please reply here starting with @tum_ (I'll get the notification in this case, otherwise I might not notice).
    – tum_
    Oct 10, 2019 at 16:57
  • @tum_ Please go ahead, I don't mind.
    – Laymond
    Oct 10, 2019 at 17:14
  • Done: Nobel prize in literature 2018 - what is “encyclopedic passion”?. Sorry if I worded it badly, I'm half asleep... ))
    – tum_
    Oct 10, 2019 at 20:32
  • All-encompassing. Oct 11, 2019 at 23:44

2 Answers 2


Just to add a subtly here, "encyclopedic knowledge" doesn't just refer to vast knowledge, it refers to comprehensive knowledge. (You could have lots of knowledge about a very narrow topic, but that would not usually be referred to as "encyclopedic" knowledge). In other words, it's not just just the quantity of knowledge, it's also breadth of knowledge - i.e. lots of knowledge about lots of topics.

"Encyclopedic passion" is a quite uncommon phrase, but by analogy to the above, it would imply that she's very passionate about a lot of different topics - not only does she know a lot about a lot of different topics, she's passionate about them too.

  • Posted my question on English.SE without seeing your answer. Let's see what people say there.
    – tum_
    Oct 10, 2019 at 20:42
  • Well, but the passion seems to be related not to her (Olga Tokarczuk) but to imagination: a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents... ?
    – tum_
    Oct 10, 2019 at 20:55
  • @tum_ I think that the basic point is the same, though. Oct 10, 2019 at 21:08
  • Could you comment on the whole "short description"? We've focused on this encyclopedic passion because it does stand out as an unusual collocation(?) but, in fact, the original question is a bit wider than this.
    – tum_
    Oct 11, 2019 at 5:24

Narratives come in many shapes/forms/sizes. It’s fairly common for a book to be written (mostly) linearly. It’s also common for an author to stick with a specific set of related characters. (See books such as the Harry Potter series.)

Tokarczuk’s Flights is written more as a constellation: smaller segments that make up the whole like individual stars make up one image. The content of the single novel ranges from short stories to pieces of historical or scientific information.

Some might argue Flights doesn’t categorize as a novel due to this structure. I agree that it challenges what a reader might expect from ‘a novel’ (though if you are familiar with works from smaller press publications such as OmniDawn, it is a comfortable form). The book traverses across fields that are often treated as separate, given firm boundary lines (such as ‘science’ vs ‘literature’). It further traverses across geographies and from character to character. One might say Tokarczuk gives the novel a migratory form, echoing what it is to be a migrant, immigrant, traveler — a body in motion.

From etymonline.com, “encylopedia” means “general course of instruction.” Literally, it means “training in a circle”. In terms of education/instruction, the circle is the arts and sciences.

“Passion” means both “suffering, enduring” and “strong emotion, desire.”

It is not too strange to say that your passions are informed by x, y, z.

I suspect that by stating Tokarczuk has “a narrative imagination…with encyclopedic passion…,” the committee intends to convey her constellation style of storytelling. How the suffering/desire moves in a circle to speak on or include many (seemingly disparate) things. How the suffering/desire is broad in its education. Then, how the narrative form utilizes these encyclopedic passions to tell the story that is Flights.

  • Well, I presume, only after reading the book one can hope to get one's head around the crossing of boundaries as a form of life, then.
    – tum_
    Oct 11, 2019 at 15:32
  • 1
    @tum_ Honestly, yeah. I find her text provides intuition for that concept... on a simpler level, you could consider that we cross boundaries daily (boundary between night and day, sleep and waking, stillness and movement, inside and outside, etc). To live life as if it is about constant crossing of boundary lines, such as those, might be what the phrase communicates.
    – rakaki
    Oct 12, 2019 at 5:56

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