Biography of a Book

The title of this post evokes the title Paul Eggert, a textual studies scholar, gave to one of his works, Biography of a Book: Henry Lawson’s While the Billy Boils, about a key publication in Australian literary history.

The biography of a book includes its birth–conceived by the author and midwifed by the editor and publisher who package and distribute it–and the “life of its own” that signals the transformation from something expressed by the author to something interpreted by the reader. The book’s life is made up of many little details involving marketing, translation, reception, revision, and other aspects. For the biographer of a book, it is not only the text (or “content” as we call it in the digital age) that is of interest but also the material form of the work and the consequences of the decisions made regarding the production of the book. The best biographers take a life-and-times approach, providing the temporal, geographic, social, and cultural contexts to help explain the impact of the person or book whose life is being recounted, or, more accurately, constructed.

With few exceptions, the secondary literature surrounding the 1972 edition of The Limits to Growth has addressed the authors’ ideas, methods, and interpretations, that is, the texts. As Jonathan Rose has written, “The problem with focusing on texts is that no one can read a text–not until it is incarnated in the material form of a book.” (“The Horizon of a New Discipline: The Invention of Book Studies,” Publishing Research Quarterly 19 (2003): 13.) (Among book historians, “book” is construed to include many forms of printed material such as periodicals and technical reports.) The book carries and presents the text and its accompanying graphics, shaping its reception among people who have read it and those who haven’t, as Priscilla Coit Murphy shows in her What a Book Can Do: The Production and Reception of Silent Spring.  James Secord, a historian of scientific communication, illuminates the importance of book history to the history of science and particularly to the communication of knowledge to expert and non-expert readers in his book Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of the Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Environmental historian Andrew Kirk, in Counterculture Green, examines the role of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, a hard-to-classify form of underground publication, in shifting the American environmental movement from a focus on wildlife preservation to a focus on the interplay of ecology and technology. Another helpful framework is provided by Suzuette Soomai and Bertrum MacDonald in their discussion of the complexity of environmental information forms and flows that governmental and non-governmental scientists and policy makers use (“Information Matters: Global Perspectives about Communication at the Science-Policy Interface,” pp. 275-80 in The Future of Ocean Governance and Capacity Development (Brill, 2018)).

The Limits to Growth has had an eventful life, and it isn’t dead yet. The book summed up the findings of a research project commissioned by the Club of Rome, a small but influential group of scholars, industrialists, and other thought leaders concerned about the future of the earth. The research pioneered the use of computers to simulate scenarios of the future. The research team used different assumptions and input different data to understand possible outcomes. On page 23 of the 1972 edition came the assertion that launched a worldwide discussion:

“If the present growth trends . . . continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.”

As Ugo Bardi writes in The Limits to Growth Revisited (Springer, 2011):

“The book generated enormous interest and the debate on its validity raged. Some recognized it as a milestone in human thought, while others dismissed it as a worthless exercise based on flawed assumptions. . . . The negative opinion about LTG appears to be still prevalent today. However, there are also evident signs of a reappraisal in progress.” (p. 2)

Google Books Ngram Viewer

A look at the occurrences of the two titles Silent Spring and Limits to Growth show that both received a great deal of attention when first published and that attention tapered off over time. Limits to Growth never received the enormous attention given Silent Spring, but the book has continued to be discussed, and, as Bardi says, to be reappraised.

Moreover, the book’s title has been adopted as a commonly used phrase, even when the book itself is not being cited or discussed. How do we know? Google’s ngram viewer searches are case sensitive. The chart below shows that the phrase “the limits to growth” began to be used after the book’s release and that it has continued along the same trend line as the book, though with more occurrences than the book title.

Google Books Ngram Viewer

While there is no doubt that The Limits to Growth has had an impact, there’s still a lot to understand about how that impact developed. A big part of the story involves the material form of the book, its dissemination, and its reception, including the ongoing appraisal and reappraisal of its methods and findings.

Environmental book history

Environmental book history

My research is situated at the intersection of environmental history and book history. For the past twenty-five years, I have researched and written about the history of print culture. My earlier work focused on the history of American public libraries as institutions operating within what book historian Robert Darnton has described as a communications circuit of authors, publishers, printers, and readers engaged in the production, collection, distribution, and reception of printed texts. American public libraries emerged in the late nineteenth century, distinguishing themselves from earlier fee-based and private libraries with the motto “free to all.” What my research uncovered, however, was the systematic exclusion of African Americans from many public libraries. My book on the history of segregated public libraries, Not Free, Not for All: Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow (University of Massachusetts Press, 2015), has received two awards.

While working on that project, I became aware of environmental justice issues, particularly in connection with the Houston (Texas) black library branch, which was located near some downtown horse stables on an unpaved street that became almost impassable on rainy days. This led me to the book Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality (Westview Press, 2000) by the pioneering Houston-based scholar Robert D. Bullard and an ongoing interest in social justice in the context not only of libraries but also of the physical environment.

At the same time, my focus on public libraries as institutions of book acquisition and distribution shifted to the books themselves. As a faculty member at the University of Arizona, I became interested in Stewart Udall, an Arizonan who served as the U.S. Secretary of the Interior throughout the 1960s. Udall’s papers are in the University of Arizona library, and I used them to research the production and reception of his book The Quiet Crisis, issued a year after Silent Spring. Knowing of my growing interest in environmental book history, Fernando Elichirigoity, the author of Planet Management: Limits to Growth, Computer Simulation, and the Emergence of Global Spaces (Northwestern University Press, 1999), encouraged me to turn my attention to The Limits to Growth books.

Since then, I have given several papers focusing on the 1972 edition of Limits at national and international environmental and book history conferences. One paper considered the consequences of the research team’s decision to publish The Limits to Growth as an accessible report aimed at an audience of policy makers before publishing the technical report documenting the research for an audience of scholars. Another paper evaluated the significant differences between The Limits to Growth and its French translation.

At the Third World Conference on Environmental History in Brazil in 2019, I presented a paper about an Argentinian critique of the first Limits to Growth book that included a proposal for a social-justice-oriented alternative, the “Latin American World Model.” At the end of the session, an environmental historian in the audience applauded our panel and asked why there aren’t more book history panels at environmental history conferences. I hope my work will contribute to the small but growing literature at the intersection of environmental and book history. Edit