Priscilla Coit Murphy. What a Book Can Do: The Publication and Reception of Silent Spring. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005. 288 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-55849-476-3.
Reviewed by Elliot King (Loyola College in Maryland)
Published on Jhistory (March, 2008)
A Book Can Change History
Agenda setting has been one of the most cultivated and fruitful fields of journalism research. How does a specific issue climb in public interest, become the subject for spirited public debate, and ultimately lead to policy change? The agenda-setting process is all the more complex because frequently an issue that suddenly bursts onto the public agenda has been long simmering among experts or a narrow community of interested parties.
Of all the many different ways an issue can percolate up onto the public agenda, there is a deep-seated belief that sometimes a book can be the catalyst. In fact, a handful of books are credited with, if not changing the course of history or public policy, at least giving history or policy a nudge. Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) is seen as helping to fuel the flame that led to the Civil War. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906) spurred the creation of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and inaugurated a regulatory regime still at work today. And, Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed (1965) helped launch the auto safety movement.
Rachel Carson's Silent Spring has a hallowed position in the pantheon of "books that made a difference." Published in 1962, Silent Spring is credited with helping to launch the modern environmental movement. The public controversy that erupted following its publication led to banning the use of the pesticide DDT in the United States in 1972 and indirectly to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. In many ways, Al Gore's documentary film An Inconvenient Truth (2006) is a direct progeny of Silent Spring. (Both Carson and Gore weathered attacks on their credentials and their accuracy.) If Carson was still alive, perhaps she would have won a Nobel Peace Prize.
The question that Priscilla Coit Murphy tackles in What a Book Can Do is how did it happen? How did Silent Spring achieve what it did? And what, if any, difference did it make that Silent Spring was a book and not (primarily) a magazine article, a series of news articles, or even a television documentary? What is the unique role books can play in the creation of public controversy and the setting of the public agenda?
As Murphy notes in the beginning, she did not study Silent Spring because of a particular relationship to the book or its content. Instead, she wanted to study the response of other media to the publication of a book. She selected Carson's book, in part, because it was serialized in the New Yorker magazine three months prior to its publication as a book, and publication in a magazine insured that the arguments in Silent Spring would be presented in more than one medium.
What a Book Can Do is thoroughly researched history of the life cycle of a book from its conception through the release of an important report by the President's Science Advisory Committee about the issue it discussed to the release of the paperback version and Carson's death in 1964. Full of well-documented, rich detail, Murphy's book describes how Carson, a popular nature writer and long-time employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, decided to write a full-length book about the decidedly unglamorous subject of chemical pesticides. Murphy's study describes the original plan for Carson to write an article for the New Yorker and edit a volume of collected essays that would be published by Houghton Mifflin, which had published her previous book.
Then, it describes the reaction, first, to the magazine articles in the New Yorker, where Silent Spring was published in three installments, and, then, to the publication of the book itself. Murphy chronicles the responses of reviewers, the political community, and, perhaps most significantly, the chemical industry. Finally, to the best of her ability, and this admittedly is a tricky task, she tries to gauge the reaction of the public itself, or at least the reading public. Silent Spring was a bestseller, but bestseller lists quantify how many books are purchased, not necessarily how many of those books are read.
On the one hand, what Murphy discovered is not very surprising. The arguments in Silent Spring gained widespread attention. Even President John F. Kennedy was aware of the arguments in Silent Spring as soon as it was published in the New Yorker. The subsequent publication in book form generated renewed media attention as newspapers and other periodicals began to review and comment on it. Since Carson was already a well-known nature writer, she had a ready-made receptive audience among garden clubs and others.
Moreover, the response of the chemical industry helped turn Silent Spring into a news story. Suddenly, the issue had two sides--a development that fit the needs of the media. As with Unsafe at Any Speed, the industry's vigorous attack on Silent Spring in many ways helped elevate it in the public's and the media's eye. Eventually, media coverage climaxed in April 1964, when the newsmagazine "CBS Reports" ran a piece entitled "The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson." By that time, pesticides and the environment were clearly on the national agenda.
On the other hand, even if Murphy's discoveries are not particularly surprising, she has turned a welcome spotlight on the role a book can play in the generation of national dialogue as well as the cross-fertilization among different elements of the media. Despite charges to the contrary, the media are hardly monolithic, and Murphy effectively argues that books play a specific role in public debate of this sort. A book can anchor one side of a controversial argument. If, or when, the other side launches a counterattack, news results.
Ironically, to some degree, it was helpful that Carson was sick following the publication of Silent Spring. Because she had to significantly limit her personal appearances, her message largely stayed front and center on the agenda. Since the messenger could not be the story, the message was. Over the years, the book has remained in print and its title has become an iconic term. What a Book Can Do is well conceived and competently written. Murphy's short answer to the question what can a book do, is this--a lot.
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Elliot King. Review of Murphy, Priscilla Coit, What a Book Can Do: The Publication and Reception of Silent Spring.
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