‘Biographies’ place landmark publications in context
“Darwin’s Origin of Species: A Biography,” by Janet Browne. Atlantic Monthly Press, $19.95, 160 pages. Scheduled release: March 10.
“The Qur’an: A Biography,” by Bruce Lawrence. Atlantic Monthly Press, $19.95, 216 pages. Scheduled release: Feb. 10.
The publishing success of Penguin’s “Brief Lives” series has prompted similar ventures at other presses, notably Norton’s series on Great Discoveries, and now Atlantic Monthly Press’ “biographies” of Books That Changed the World.
The history of a significant book is itself interesting, and Atlantic’s first two entries are lively, timely and provocative: “Darwin’s Origin of Species” by Janet Browne, the leading biographer and historian of Charles Darwin, and “The Qur’an” (more familiar in English as the Koran) by Bruce Lawrence, professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University. Each author is an authority on the respective book, its authorship and history, its impact and its ramifications on history.
It should be mentioned that there’s a third title inaugurating this series: P.J. O’Rourke’s “On The Wealth of Nations,” which might be misread as another of O’Rourke’s irreverent titles, like “Give War a Chance” or “Parliament of Whores.” O’Rourke takes on Adam Smith’s “doorstopper” in his inimitable, opinionated style, an approach that doesn’t happen to work for this particular publishing venture.
Browne and Lawrence, though they are distinctive writers and anything but imitable, subordinate themselves to their subjects, and write for the general reader. Theirs is the grown-up version of those biographies of history’s innovators and discoverers that many of us pored over as young readers. Here, those stories are enhanced by candor and fullness of detail, a broadened knowledge of the world and the consequences those discoveries and innovations have had.
Both book biographies are tied up with a great historical current that resounds ever more loudly today. Neither Browne nor Lawrence addresses at length today’s debates over evolution and Islamic fundamentalism. But in each case, the background of these seminal books is illuminating — and in Lawrence’s history of the Qur’an, highly instructive. The Qur’an is a complex, multilayered book, and has embraced a variety of commentators and interpretations, ranging from the poetry of Rumi to the Taj Mahal, to the jihad of Osama Bin laden — which Lawrence sees as spurious “fundamentalism.”
Lawrence stresses the importance of recitation in the Qur’an: “It must be heard to be appreciated in its Arabic cadences, its inexpressible rhythms, its calibrated scales.”
In his lifetime, Darwin sold only 18,000 copies of “Origins,” probably the most influential book of his century, after possibly “Das Kapital” (a forthcoming title in this series). The first edition numbered only 1,250. Most interesting in light of today’s debate over evolution is Browne’s contention that “Learned biblical study since the Enlightenment had encouraged Christians increasingly to regard the early stories as potent metaphors rather than literal accounts. Biblical fundamentalism is mostly a modern concern, not a Victorian one.”
Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels, collected rare editions of books that “made a difference,” such as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and the Boy Scout Handbook. This is a very narrow specialty for collectors as well as for readers, but in the hands of these two fine writers, the history of the book is a map of the world we live in today.
David Walton, who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh in Oakland, is the author of “Ride” and winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for his short-story collection “Evening Out.”