About Book Bios
By Roy M. Carlisle
Biographies of books are a fairly new phenomenon in scholarly and trade publishing. They emerged out of the scholarship of S.H.A.R.P. scholars. S.H.A.R.P. is the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing which was founded back in 1992 by Jonathan Rose, Simon Eliot, and Patrick Leary. Now there are about 900 scholars in literature, library science, and history around the world who are studying the “history of the book.” This academic field is growing steadily and many wonderful articles and books are emerging. But the “biography of the book” is the most visible result of these research efforts.
In fact, Princeton University Press has a whole series entitled “Lives of Great Religious Books” which is a list of short volumes that recount the complex and fascinating histories of important religious texts from around the world. Written for general readers by leading authors and experts, these books examine the historical origins of texts from the great religious traditions, and trace how their reception, interpretation, and influence have changed—often radically—over time. As these stories of translation, adaptation, appropriation, and inspiration dramatically remind us, all great religious books are living things whose careers in the world can take the most unexpected turns. This is a fun series with Mere Christianity, Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison, the Koran, etc. So far, they have published a couple dozen of these titles and each one has the subtitle: A Biography.
A new series to me but one that grew over many years is a series from Atlantic Monthly Press, “Books That Changed the World.” The Series is no longer even listed on their website and there is no mention of it in their catalogues so I assume it is now a defunct series. But I have read The Bible: A Biography by Karen Armstrong. The author of 28 books on religion she has been called "a prominent and prolific religious historian" by The Washington Post and described as "arguably the most lucid, wide-ranging and consistently interesting religion writer today." The Bible is one of her strongest books from my perspective although everything she writes is rather astonishing. Some books in the AMP Series have the subtitle: A Biography and some don’t. But clearly some editor at AMP was clued into this genre long before I was and I am very grateful for this collection of titles.
The University of Massachusetts Press has a series entitled: “Studies in Print Culture and the History of the Book.” This series includes a substantial list of books on the history of print culture, authorship, reading, writing, printing, and publishing. The editors are especially interested in interdisciplinary work and invite submissions from scholars in history, literary studies, bibliography, and related fields who are working in this area. The best book biography (in my opinion) is in this series and it was written by independent S.H.A.R.P. scholar Priscilla Coit Murphy. It is called: What A Book Can Do: The Publication and Reception of Silent Spring. Her approach in this book is a social science perspective rather than literary or historical. She has been helpful to me personally as I explore this world and prepare to publish our first book biography at PageMill Press. The manuscript for our first book biography has just been delivered by Katie Teesdale. It is a biography of the novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith which has been one of the long-term best-selling novels in US publishing history. It was originally published in 1943 and millions and millions of copies have been sold.
There are now individual book biographies appearing from various presses. One of the recent titles from 2019 was The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 by Dorian Lynskey (Picador Books, an imprint of Pan MacMillan) and a second was So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why it Endures by Maureen Corrigan (Little Brown & Co., 2014). In both instances I have not been impressed because both books spend too much time on information about the authors and less time on the cultural impact of the actual book. A book biography is distinctly not an author biography but since neither author is a S.H.A.R.P. scholar they don’t quite keep this balance in perspective. This is unfortunate and just to wildly speculate, I would predict that neither book will sell large quantities and that affects the whole genre.
On another note, I have commissioned a book biography of Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth by Richard J. Foster. This book has made publishing history as it was named one of the ten best religious books of the 20th Century and it has been in print for 43 years in hardcover with no paperback issue in sight. It has been translated into 25 languages and has sold millions of copies around the world and is the book that jump-started the Protestant “spiritual formation” movement in the US, which even Wikipedia chronicles. This book will sell in large numbers and that will help promote the book biography genre. We (a team including me, an agent, a writer, RJF, and an assistant) have just reviewed the first rough draft manuscript and the writer will continue to revise it until the whole team agrees that it is ready for publication.
It is clear that PageMill Press is committed to this genre and would greatly like to commission and publish book biographies of the following titles:
1. The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James,
2. Memories, Dreams, Reflections by C.G. Jung
3. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
4. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
5. Confessions by St. Augustine
6. Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
7. The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud
8. Walden by Henry David Thoreau
9. Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrick Nietzsche
10. On the Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin
11. A Tale of Two Cities by Mark Twain
11b. Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
12. Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan
13. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
14. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
15. The Narnia Chronicles by C.S. Lewis
16. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
17. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
18. Letters to a Young Poet by Ranier Maria Rilke