About Book Bios
By Roy M. Carlisle
Back in the early 90s a new academic society was formed. This Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing was founded to create a global network for book historians working in a broad range of scholarly disciplines. Their research addresses the composition, mediation, reception, survival, and transformation of written communication in material forms from marks on stone to new media. Perspectives range from the individual reader to the transnational communication network. With more than a thousand members in over forty countries, SHARP works in concert with affiliated academic organizations around the world to support the study of book history in all its forms.
One of the most visible signs of the S.H.A.R.P.’s scholarship is in the publishing of a new genre of book, the biography of a book. Originally the “biography of a book” genre was only found on the lists of university presses. My assumption was that those books were written by SHARP scholars. And that was the case with one book by Priscilla Coit Murphy* in a series at the University of Massachusetts Press—Studies in Print Culture and the History of the Book. And I consider that book to be the best example of this scholarship and for me it is the template for writing new biographies of books. But with the series at Princeton University Press—Lives of Great Religious Books-- it was not the case. The subtitle for each of these books is: A Biography. So PUP is trying to make the biography of a book a more well-known brand. But frankly, the PUP books were a bit off the mark because they were not written by SHARP scholars. The one volume in that series that I do use as a template for scholars who want to write a book in this new genre is by George Marsden, C.S.Lewis’s Mere Christianity: A Biography. Marsden is a well-respected and highly acclaimed historian who did figure out how to manage and write this new kind of a book.
Subsequently now this new book bio genre has slipped into the lists of trade publishers. So we have a biography of 1984 by Orwell and The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald. Again they are slightly off the mark because they overload the book with too much biographical material about the author which detracts from a biography of a book. For example, with Fitzgerald there are more than 50 biographies of him and his wife Zelda. We don’t need more biographical author detail in a biography of his book. A book bio is primarily the result of research about what impact that book had on culture when it was published and then throughout its publishing life. That means there needs to be a sociological perspective to measure impact but it also means there needs to be a way to chronicle and assess the historical journey of that specific title. Dr. Priscilla Coit Murphy does a great job of merging both of those perspectives in her assessment of the role Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring played in jump starting the environmental movement in America.
Additionally Priscilla Coit Murphy inspired me to think about this category within the two areas of my own publishing expertise, spirituality and psychology. So now I am working on two biographies of a book and proactively looking for a third. The two bios I am encouraging and supporting will be books that I will publish at PageMill Press. One is a bio of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by a young scholar, Katherine Teesdale. The other is a bio of The Grapes of Wrath by another young scholar. We are also hoping that we can find a scholar who can write a biography of The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. Eventually I would like to find someone to do a bio of Moby Dick and someone to do a bio of To Kill a Mockingbird and maybe Gone with the Wind.
PMP is interested in continuing our series of book biographies and I look forward to seeing new proposals. But I do suggest strongly that you read Priscilla Murphy’s book before submitting a proposal. That will be a helpful starting point for nonprofessional historians and/or independent scholars that are not members of S.H.A.R.P.
*Priscilla Coit Murphy, What a Book Can Do: The Publication and Reception of Silent Spring (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005).