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The Sum of the People: How the Census Has Shaped Nations, from the Ancient World to the Modern Age

3.86  ·  Rating details ·  110 ratings  ·  27 reviews
The fascinating three-thousand-year history of the census, revealing why the true boundaries of today's nations aren't lines on a map, but columns in a census tabulation

In April 2020, the United States will embark on what has been called "the largest peacetime mobilization in American history": the decennial population census. It is part of a tradition of counting people t
Hardcover, 368 pages
Published March 31st 2020 by Basic Books (first published March 2020)
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Jacobus Cilliers
Jun 10, 2020 rated it it was amazing
What a joy to read! The book is extremely well-written and insightful. Who would have known that the history of the census would be so interesting? Andew Whitby gives us a whirl-wind tour of the history of the census, starting with Biblical times when the purpose of census was extraction - taxation and conscription - and state control. It's purpose slowly evolved, in line with the evolving role of the state, and the census became important for determining distribution of benefits and political p ...more
Strongly recommended by the Economist in
The big ask: A lively and enlightening history of the census

It deserved that endorsement, and more. If you were paying attention to discussions about the census in the United States in 2020, you know that who is counted, and how, can matter a lot.

A census mediates who national identity. Earlier censuses tallied "white" people by their country of origin, Asians also, but only from the far east. But blacks were noted merely black, and nothing about oth
Feb 12, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-politics
Maybe those nice people at Netgalley and Basic Books who sent me a free advance egalley of this book won’t be too happy when I mention this book in the same metaphorical breath as the section of The Week newsmagazine named Boring But Important. I did NOT think the book boring, but the Boring but Important section of the magazine regularly opens a window on stuff (e.g., Net Neutrality legislation) most of us don’t have the time or inclination to pay attention to, but which some people, some time, ...more
May 11, 2020 rated it really liked it
A good overview of both the international history of the census but some of the major controversies surrounding counting everyone. Who knew that something as seemly dry as the census was connected to Nazi political control and the Holocaust, the book of Exodus, the idea of the surveillance state, increasing US political partisanship, civil rights struggles in Australia, Icelandic famine, eugenics, and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (the section on the Palestinian census and its role in politic ...more
charlotte (moerreads)
THE SUM OF THE PEOPLE is one of those rare books that encompasses the history of the world yet isn't somehow 3,000 pages long. Whitby traces the development of the census from biblical times into the empires of Rome and Greece, onto the conquest of the British Isles and the expansion of empire overseas, to the period of revolution in France and the United States, through the Industrial Revolution and up to modern day. The book reads like an exquisite and long-winding story, making stops along th ...more
Feb 10, 2021 rated it really liked it
I was briefly nervous when, in the prologue to The Sum of the People, Andrew Whitby noted that he was going to be selective in covering a long stretch of time, focusing on a handful of periods, with context provided for each. I anticipated wishing for a longer book, fewer holes in the history, and more discussion of minutiae, but this felt quite seamless (although, given how interesting The Sum of the People was, I’m sure I would have enjoyed it at much greater length as well, though I doubt the ...more
Alex Song
May 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Ripped through this book in one week. Super interesting book about the history of the census through human history. The history of IBM is absolutely fascinating and I loved the chapter surrounding WW2. Certainly raises a lot of topics about the census that I've never thought about before. ...more
Feb 02, 2021 rated it liked it
"To count is to have value, to matter. To be counted is to be included, and, perhaps, to be known" (pg 22).

I enjoyed the book; however, after a few chapters, my eyes started to get cross-eyed and I'd forget what was discussed in the previous chapter, even as I read this throughout the span of nearly a week. Sometimes, I felt like he discussed certain topics in a little too much detail that I'd get a bit lost. It was quite interesting to learn about the census and how it has evolved, especially
Apr 30, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2020, non-fiction, kindle
A history of the Census, from antiquity to present-day.

Whitby pays special attention to the American censuses, as they were if not the first modern census (That was probably Iceland in 1703), nor the first continuous series of censuses (That's Sweden, dating from 1749), but indeed an important milestone, as it has a special place in the US constitution.

The census as we know it, was invented in 1790, and got a serious boost by Herman Hollerith in 1890 (the first punch card tabulators). The book t
R.J. Gilmour
Aug 15, 2020 rated it really liked it
Whitby looks at the history of the census placing it an historical context.

"Nor does the modern census look much like the Roman one. Like any long-lived institution, the census has had many different, conflicting functions over its history. It arose to satisfy the administrative needs of despots yet eventually developed a crucial role in supporting democracy." 4

"Some countries have now abandoned the decennial enumeration altogether. Instead, they maintain population registers, databases of thei
Aug 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I enjoyed The Sum of the People as a thoroughly well done piece of writing, research and thought-provoking conclusions.
According to the publisher, the author “… traces the remarkable history of the census, from ancient China and the Roman Empire, through revolutionary America and Nazi-occupied Europe, to the steps of the Supreme Court.”
Indeed, it does, in intriguing fashion. The tale zig zags across time and space. I marveled at where Andrew Whitby's thoughts took him and me, from the Old Testa
The Sum of the People by Andrew Whitby is a free NetGalley ebook that I read in late February.

Whitby has quite a chatty and meandering voice, that ducks beneath the boundaries of specific, factual, chronological, quantitative research to go off on loose tangents about the originators and stat-making of the census.
Mario D
Aug 01, 2020 rated it liked it
I found the book interesting, but at a point difficult to stay with. I suspect that if you are truly interested in the history of census taking this is the book for you. I'm probably more suited for a lengthy article on the topic. ...more
Rayfes Mondal
Apr 30, 2020 rated it liked it
Introduction and last chapter were interesting but I couldn't get into ther rest of it and didn't read it. Intersting political implications of the census. Last chapter talked about how it might change with the internet. I did my 2020 census online ...more
Jun 10, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
The historical view is very interesting. What will happen in the future is well discussed.
Jan 16, 2021 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Well written, and really interesting in parts. Sometimes took a while to make the point, and dragged the reader through a whole lot of other history to do so.
Apr 24, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: social-science
3.5 stars
PottWab Regional Library
Oct 15, 2020 marked it as to-read
Shelves: 2020-new
Sep 24, 2020 rated it liked it
Last chapter very interesting about the possible/probable gradual end of census enumeration.
Aug 10, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfic
A really fascinating and well-written book! I learned a lot.
Alicia Hanson
Didn't finish, may try again. ...more
John Gambino
Feb 15, 2021 rated it really liked it
Much darker than I expected. A good exploration of the history of the census with some emphasis on the misuses that can arise and the struggles career statisticians go through in the process.
May 17, 2020 rated it liked it
Not quite memorable but there are some interesting facts I didn’t know before that. This one withers out like how census is probably going to fade too.
Cindy DavisClark
Sep 17, 2020 rated it liked it
Statistics about census both past and current made very interesting
Maddie O.
Mar 21, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: netgalley
I received an ARC of this book via NetGalley.

I thought this was a good microhistory, but it didn't really captivate or wow me. I also remember thinking that it jumped around a little too much.
Jennifer Schultz
Feb 04, 2020 rated it really liked it
Read if you: Want a deep dive into the surprising history of census.

With the 2020 US Census looming, there's no better time to contemplate the reasons for and the history behind censuses. From ancient China, Biblical times, the early days of the US, Nazi Germany, and post-apartheid South Africa, the census has been much more than just a head count of people residing in one place. Andrew Whitby reveals the insightful and yes, horrifying ways censuses have been used throughout history, as well as
Jan 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Intriguing Book for Census Year. This book is currently scheduled to be released the day before Census Day and does an admirable job of tracing the concept of a census from its ancient origins through to its current uses, implications, and complexities. In that regard, it is very similar to Radley Balko's 2012 work Rise of the Warrior Cop, which traced policing in America in a similar fashion. Eye opening in many respects, head scratching in maybe a couple, this is absolutely a book that should ...more
Shuchir Bhatia
rated it it was amazing
Aug 08, 2020
rated it it was amazing
Jul 19, 2020
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Aug 10, 2020
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