'Biographies' Place Landmark Publications in Context

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"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. …