Whitby, Andrew. 2020. The Sum of the People: How the Census has Shaped Nations, from the Ancient World to the Modern Age. New York: Basic Books. 368 pp.

When I first received a gracious invitation to examine The Sum of the People: How the Census has Shaped Nations, from the Ancient World to the Modern Age, I have to admit I was a bit skeptical as to author Andrew Whitby’s intent to talk about the census as both a concept and an historical narrative spanning a timeline, as the subtitle indicates, “from the Ancient World to the Modern age.” Would the work be just another brief commentary on our current US 2020 Census, or would it digress into a study of enumeration as a tool used by statisticians to merely count human bodies and their geographic location—lacking a human narrative or historic context?

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Whitby’s efforts to discuss everything from King Ariantas—leader of the nomadic Scythians (who lived in Central Asia)—and his efforts to count the Scythian population by requesting members bring arrowheads to him to a spirited discussion of Palestinian census activities in the Israeli occupied areas of the West Bank and Gaza produce interesting narrative. Whitby’s identification of the Census as a “vast and intrepid undertaking. . . . To count is to have value, to matter” becomes a platform for a well-written, condensed version of the history of mankind.

In The Sum of the People prologue, Whitby acknowledges that he has selected mere snapshots of census activities through the ages, “tracing it backward from its present incarnation: an attempt to count everyone, everywhere.” Yet, it is Whitby’s up-front honesty with the reader that the story is a mere handful of thousands of census moments (some significant, many routine) that keeps the reader engaged, asking the question, “What interesting little bit of census knowledge will Whitby transform into an interesting history lesson that both teaches and entertains?”

While The Sum of the People chooses to emphasize many early US census strategies and events, it is the discussion of such significant historical census exercises as the Biblical census in Bethlehem where Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were counted; Hitler’s Third Reich and Arian Master Race census efforts prior to World War II; and the global census activities that took place in post-World War II Russia, China, and India that offer surprising insight into the social, political, and economic climates of the time periods.

It is also one of the rare times when Whitby’s annotated footnotes offer almost as much engaging content as the main narrative. For example, a footnote discussing how to count African Americans during an expanded 1890 US Census includes an excerpt from Kenneth Prewitt’s What is Your Race?: The Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans (Princeton, NJ: University Press, 2013) that could be an interesting parallel discussion in its own right to today’s US 2020 Census citizenship question. The passage reads, “Be particularly careful to distinguish between blacks, mulattoes, quadroons, and octoroons. The word ‘black’ should be used to describe those persons who have three-fourths or more black blood . . . and ‘octoroon’, those persons who have one-eighth or any trace of black blood. In fact, these fine-grained, pseudo-scientific categories proved useless for any purpose and were never tabulated.” Again, it is at these moments that Whitby’s narrative becomes a mini-world history textbook that reads like a well-crafted historical novel.

It is gratifying to know that The Sum of the People includes an index. That feature, in my view, makes it required reading for world history, sociology, and economics courses starting at the secondary high school level into graduate studies curriculums at the college/university level. Even without the useful index, The Sum of the People: How the Census has Shaped Nations, from the Ancient World to the Modern Age is a comprehensive census history primer and really good read.—Tom Adamich, Professor and Technical Services/Reference Librarian, Monroe County Community College, Monroe, Michigan; President, Visiting Librarian Service


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