Salman Rushdie is probably the Booker Prize's best-known winner. Now he is officially the best.

Rushdie's 1981 novel "Midnight's Children" was named Thursday as the greatest-ever winner of Britain's most prestigious literary award. The book received more than a third of the 7,801 votes cast in a competition to mark the prize's 40th anniversary.

The book beat five other finalists, including Pat Barker's World War I novel "The Ghost Road" and South African writer J.M. Coetzee's "Disgrace."

Rushdie, who is promoting his latest novel, "The Enchantress of Florence," in the United States, said in a videotaped message that he was "absolutely delighted" with the accolade.

The Indian-born British writer had been strong favorite for the "Best of the Booker" award. "Midnight's Children" won a similar contest held in 1993 to mark the Booker's 25th anniversary.

"It's a book which always appears on polls of people's favorite books, so it's no surprise to see it win," said Jonathan Ruppin, promotions manager of the Foyles bookstore chain. "He's not to everyone's taste, but from a bookseller's point of view, authors who get books into the news are always welcome."

The 41 Booker winners were winnowed down to six finalists by a panel of three judges that included a biographer, a broadcaster and an English professor. The public was then asked to vote online or by mobile phone text message.

The other finalists were Australian novelist Peter Carey's "Oscar and Lucinda," Nadine Gordimer's "The Conservationist" and _ the outsider _ "The Siege of Krishnapur" by the late J.G. Farrell.

Born in Mumbai in 1947 and educated in England, Rushdie shot to literary fame with "Midnight's Children," a magic-realist saga that weaves the story of a narrator, born at the moment of India's independence in 1947, with the subcontinent's modern history.

His 1988 novel "The Satanic Verses" angered many in the Muslim world and brought a death sentence for blasphemy from Iran's then-leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Rushdie lived in hiding for a decade until the Iranian government distanced itself from the order in 1998, saying it would not back any effort to kill Rushdie. He has since gradually returned to public life, and spends much of his time in New York.

He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II last year and received the honor at Buckingham Palace last month.

The prize is formally known as the Man Booker after its sponsor, financial services conglomerate Man Group PLC. It was first handed out in 1969 and is open to writers from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth. There have been 41 winners because there were joint champions in 1974 and 1992.

Winners receive 50,000 pounds (US$100,000) and a burst of publicity that usually brings a surge in sales.


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