Fred Appel
on Lives of Great Religious Books

April 26th, 2011 by EVENTS

“Lives of Great Religious Books” was born in the faculty lounge of the NYU Law School in the early spring of 2005, in a conversation over tea with the eminent Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit. I had come to NYU to meet with Margalit, then a visiting scholar in the Law School, to ask him about his current research and writing, and talk more generally about trends in the humanities. This is one of the great privileges and joys of being an acquisitions editor at a distinguished scholarly publishing house: being able to engage smart and imaginative people in conversation on topics that preoccupy them. After talking about his own work – including a book he had begun that we eventually published in 2009 – the topic of conversation turned for some reason to memoirs. Margalit was of the opinion that too many were being published – or more precisely, that too few were worth reading. Then he tossed his head back and said dreamily, “you know what I’d like to read? A biography of an important book – the story of its reception across time. That’s the sort of memoir we need more of.”

We took our leave of each other, promised to keep in touch, and I headed out the door into Washington Square, my head spinning with the possibilities. An extension of the biography genre to cover lives of great books struck me as an excellent idea. Books, after all, have lives too! One can speak of their conception or birth and, if translated and distributed widely, they can live lives of consequence and enduring impact around the globe. Most books, of course, routinely disappear without a trace, unmourned, from bookshelves and memory. Literary death of this sort happens all the time. But I wanted to turn my attention to those rare texts that seem to defy the natural law that all living things must die – the books that attain a sort of immortality because their impact on human civilization has been so profound and long-lasting that our need to grapple with them knows no end. Whether they arise out of the worlds of science, philosophy, literature, or out of our enduring traditions of religious belief and practice, the world simply refuses to let such books die.

I knew right away that what I wanted was a series of short, accessible biographies of books, rather than what German scholars refer to as Rezeptionsgeschichte – exhaustive, encyclopaedic volumes that discuss the scholarly reception of works of literature, philosophy, or theology in ways accessible only to fellow specialists. A bit of preliminary research revealed that one visionary English-language publisher had recently launched a book series along these very lines. Toby Mundy, Director of Atlantic Books (the UK offshoot of Grove/Atlantic), was at the time about to launch his well-regarded series “Books that Shook the World,” featuring short, accessible accounts of the lives of such epoch-making (or epoch-shattering) books such as Machiavelli’s The Prince, Marx’s Das Kapital, Plato’s Republic, and Darwin’s Origins of the Species. Oh dear, I thought, I’ve been scooped! But wait, almost all the biographies in Mundy’s series were on great books of philosophy, science, or politics. As religion editor at Princeton, I saw an opening.

I decided to commission biographies of great religious books, rather than of great scholarly books about religion, such as Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism or William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience. I wanted both stories of ancient texts that have become canonical in the great world religions traditions – books of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, books like the Bhagavad Gita – and biographies of modern texts such as The Book of Mormon and the posthumous prison writings of the twentieth-century German pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I wanted to see biographies of important “spiritual” texts that have developed a great following far from their places or origin, such as St. Augustine’s Confessions, the epic poem Mathnawi by the Persian Sufi poet Rumi, and the idiosyncratic collection of funerary texts now known in the English-speaking world as The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

I knew from the start that the success of the series would hinge on finding the right authors – world-class scholars capable of telling these stories in ways both memorable and informed by the best that contemporary scholarship has to offer. I needed authors with the requisite scholarly expertise who either had experience writing books for general audiences or who were clear writers and good story tellers ready and willing to risk writing for a broader audience. And what a pleasure it’s been to assemble a group of 19 distinguished authors (and counting) who fit this bill. The line-up includes such fine scholars as the wife and husband team of Annping Chin and Jonathan Spence (for a biography of The Analects of Confucius), Bruce Chilton (The Book of Revelation), Jack Miles (who will tell the story of the two great pre-modern translations of the Bible, the Septuagint and the Vulgate), and – to launch the series this spring – Donald S. Lopez Jr. (The Tibetan Book of the Dead), Martin E. Marty (Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison), and Garry Wills ( Augustine’s Confessions). I attribute the assembly of this dream team less to my persuasive powers than to the inherent attractiveness of the series concept.

Some of the texts whose lives are recounted in this series remain wildly popular and widely read; others are difficult to read and interpret. All have inspired, moved, galvanized, and driven to despair or ecstasy countless numbers of people through the ages. In short, they have had fascinating lives – lives that have far exceeded the brief mortal lives of their authors, translators and transcribers. They turn up in the strangest places and have been read in ways that would have puzzled or astounded their authors and original readers. Reading about the often surprising, circuitous, and fascinating afterlives of these books will both entertain and deepen our appreciation for the intellectual, cultural, and moral hold of religious ideas on all of us.

Fred Appel is Senior Editor at Princeton University Press. The “Lives of Great Religious Books” is being launched this spring with the release of the following three titles: Augustine’s Confessions: A Biography, by Garry Wills; The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography, by Donald S. Lopez, Jr.; and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison: A Biography, by Martin E. Marty.

Posted in Editors Speak

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