More About Book Bios
By Priscilla Coit Murphy
This is a note to Priscilla Coit Murphy, author of What a Book Can Do (a book biography of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson) about the book bio being written about Celebration of Discipline by Miriam Dixon in collaboration with Richard J. Foster, author of Celebration which I note in my email. And then an email text from her about writing book bios.
From: Roy Carlisle <email@example.com> / Sent: Sunday, January 30, 2022
To: Priscilla Coit Murphy
Subject: Re: Biblio-biographies - for what this might be worth
I have mentioned this, at least I hope I have, but I am working on another book bio which the agent will sell to a New York house. I would love to publish it at PageMill but at this point that is not an option on the table. It is a bio for Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth by Richard J. Foster. I edited and published that book when I was a young editor at Harper back in 1978. It has gone on to sell 2 million copies in the US, has been translated into 25 languages, and has never been issued in paperback in the US. (So, it makes a lot of money for Harpers!) It is quoted in Wikipedia as the book that spurred the Protestant movement toward spiritual formation in the US. A recent commendation that did surprise most of us. It is now in a 40th Anniversary edition so it has quite the publishing history. When I asked Foster if he would support me in commissioning a bio of CofD, he was full steam ahead. And he knew the writer he hoped I would hire, which I did. Rev. Miriam Dixon is now doing a revised draft and we think this probably will be her last revision. I have not received that draft yet but I might send it along, again with no obligation, just to share what your work has wrought! Roy M. Carlisle, MA
I looked up Foster's book on the web. My brother has a degree in theology and sometimes we chat, he from the point of view of a Roman Catholic educator and me as an educated but conscientious agnostic, and I wondered if it had crossed his desk. I found a reference to the author's "added introduction" about how the book came about in a newer edition that you've undoubtedly read. I was neither helped nor hobbled by what Rachel Carson may ever have said about "giving birth" to Silent Spring—she was skillful in letting reviewers and readers explore most of that. But had there been an author's "how and why I wrote this book," it might have distracted me from looking at less personal phenomena both before and after her book was written and published. And it certainly would have skewed what I was doing otherwise (re: publishers, media, readers, critics, etc.) if I'd focused too closely on it. The point of most books is sometimes lost on the very people who get to know the author and his/her words most intimately.
OK that's another couple of somewhat self-evident bon-mots for a cold, snowy day.
Thank you again for your appreciation of my book, but I think there should now be an automatic agreement that anyone who writes a biography of a book automatically rejects any further study biography of how and why they wrote their own book. I realize that's exactly what I've done in responding to your original request, so let that be an object lesson regarding spiraling down a bibliobiographic rabbit hole.
Best wishes to you and the PageMill Press. Priscilla
Priscilla Coit Murphy, PhD
Some “general thoughts” from Dr. Murphy about book biographies.
On Sat, Jan 29, 2022, Priscilla Coit Murphy wrote:
Since Roy Carlisle has been so kind as to refer people to my book as model for "book biography," I thought I might weigh in with a couple of general thoughts that may or may not be pretty obvious. (I'm down to un-IRS-worthy royalties anyway and just happy if people have come across my book in a library.)
As with any biography, just starting with some beginning date and then plodding through the "and then . . . and then" events has limited value other than placing it on a timeline compared to other books, events, or people. (Among other things, it's pretty hard to decide when a book has died, but that's another discussion.) Even more than with a biography of a notable human, one needs some organizational structure—for parts and whole—to arrive at a good story about the book, which a "biblio-biography" needs to be. So, it's always worth forcing yourself to start with many questions regarding your chosen book, beginning with "why would anyone care about this?"
I was fortunate in having such questions well before I even chose the book I would discuss. I wanted to know and discuss certain questions: What's the relationship between a book and all other media? What are differences, what are similarities, what are functions and interactions, what are social drivers or reasons for those functions and interactions? Much later, after I'd chosen Silent Spring, I arrived at the main inquiry—"what a book can do"—because it made explicit the differences between talking about what a book is (an idea, a bound volume, a history) and how it functions and survives.
(Side note: it also afforded the methodological boon of having the same text appear in periodical form, in the New Yorker, which gave me some valuable comparisons.)
Depending on your own choice of book, you might find yourself starting with journalistic questions such as who, what, where, and when. But always remember the writer's why. And it always starts with "why would/should/could people care about this?" Figure out the reasons, causes, situations that make the book worth your own time first. Then you can plunge into the chronology and data and maybe fit those into your "questing" plans.
Don't just report that "it was very delayed getting to the printer." First ask why, and then ask what difference it made, if any? Beware of your own answer when it's pretty much "I just thought it was interesting." It might indeed be interesting, and readers might care; but it also might waste time, attention, and focus. You can often get away with the minutiae in the biography of a person, but it's less justified in a book about a book. Besides, your publisher will be grateful for fewer pages and more, er, punch.
I know this is fairly basic, even elementary advice. I can add that it helps if you have some further organizational device(s) so that your "bibilio-biography" is not just a plodding chronology. In my case, it was very fortunate in that each stage of the book's production and public "life" focused on a different group of people and issues—author, editor, agent (though I was hobbled by denial of access to crucial archives), publisher, promotion/advertising, opposition, media, and audience, whether any of them had read it or not. (N.B., never assume anyone who talks about a book has read it.) So. I was spared the plodding “then . . . and then" timeline format. Even if the various groups or concerns of people overlapped and interacted, their functions could logically be discussed sequentially.
So, again simplistically: figure out some sub-themes beneath your main theme, for better organization if nothing else. If you're still stuck with, say, a decade-by-decade historical framework, at least try to figure out what distinguished each decade even if you're pretty sure the readers already know. Maybe they don't, or maybe they'd be gratified to find you agree with them.
Apologies to those who've already and long since figured all this out about writing in general. However, I'm hoping my specific experience with writing a book about a book will be helpful to Roy Carlisle and others wanting to write that sort of book about some other book.
Bookishly, Priscilla Coit Murphy, PhD