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Princeton University Press new series, 'Lives of Great Religious Books'

Fred Appel, Princeton University
Fred Appel, Princeton UniversityFred Appel, Princeton University

In this article about the Princeton University Press series “Lives of Great Religious Books,” this Religion Writer offers a two part introduction: (1) A kind of interview with Fred Appel of the press who talks a little about the ongoing program of the publishing project, and; (2) some notes and comments on one of the titles written by the distinguished professor and scholar Alan Jacobs titled, “The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.” Interestingly, when I received the two of the books of the series, I noted their size and so inquired about that and was told:

Regarding the format of the books, we decided to go with a slightly smaller format most books are 6 x 9, these are because it is visually appealing and also a comfortable size for reading and slipping into a pocket or bag. It also makes the collection really stand out on a shelf as a cohesive group.

Further, if the reader wishes to jump to an article describing the series, look to this link provided by the publisher who says on sending it:

We have had a few articles about the series including this rather early one: http://chronicle.com/blogs/pageview/i-regret-that-i-have-but-one-life-to-give-for-my-author/28384

But more as an introduction is this quotation as written in 2011 by the Editor of the project himself, found in the paragraph below as the best of introductions and explanation of the project itself. A far better one than this Religion writer could write and so well to the points of the project:

April 26th, 2011 by Editor

Fred Appel, editor of the new religious series, The Lives of Great Religious Books, wrote a piece for The Front Table this week:

“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.”

For more of this excellent piece about the story of this project written by the Editor, go to this link and finish his article. Copyright will not allow us to print the whole piece here.

http://blog.semcoop.com/2011/04/26/fred-appel-on-lives-of-great-religious-books/

During the course of looking into this series by Princeton University Press Editor Fred Appel agreed to take some time and jot some of his remarks on the series down in answer to some questions sent to him in writing. He responded in writing and herewith his answers as he sent them to this Religion Writer Peter Menkin.

  1. In a conversation with your writer Mark Larrimore I expressed my interest in learning of interest in his title by the public in general, a hard thing to pin down since his book hadn’t yet been released when he and I spoke in early October, 2013. So this question of you, who created the series of religious titles: What expectation did you have of readers and that audience for their appetite for the titles in the series, including both Mark Larrimore’s book a biography of Job and Alan Jacob’s a biography of The Book of Common Prayer. Please feel free to give a broad based answer to the question.

When I think of who might be interested in reading books in the “Lives of Great Religious Books” series, I never think of “the public in general.” That seems like too vague a category. I see each book in the series having both a broad, interdisciplinary scholarly readership and a potential readership among educated and interested non-scholars. Just who these people are will vary from book to book. Alan Jacobs – a wonderful and experienced writer – has a following in Christian circles, and this fact combined with his particular assignment (the Book of Common Prayer) leads me to predict a strong market among (a) historians of Protestantism and the English Reformation & other scholars with interests in British Anglicanism and (b) non-scholars with involvement and/or strong interest in the history of the Anglican Church, and in Christian prayer and liturgy more generally. Mark Larrimore’s book on Job, by contrast, will likely attract a different scholarship readership – perhaps historians of philosophy and theology and other scholars interested in biblical reception histories – as well as a different general readership (more Jewish as well as Christian readers, say). A forthcoming book on the Yoga Sutra of Patangali – by David Gordon White – will attract readers interested in eastern religious traditions and the philosophical roots of yoga. And so on.

  1. I think it is a rarer day than not when one gets a chance to get to ask an Editor in Chief who has created a “full length series” of such imaginative and scholarly religious titles of the kind you’ve begun to edit questions on their making. How does the series grow, and what does it take to get them to go? Please give us an anecdotal response on one or two author-scholars you chose and the titles they’ve written or will write. Any struggles in their creation?

Finding the right authors for books in this particular series has been a challenge. Ideally, authors for this series have some demonstrable scholarly expertise in the subject matter in question. That almost goes without saying. What is more, they must be able to tell the story of the book’s reception over time in a way that engages the interest of educated non-specialists. In other words, the authors must be comfortable writing for those who are not themselves specialists. Many of the authors in the “Lives” series have written books of this sort before, so the task is not so difficult for them. They’ve had practice. I’ve also chosen to work with scholars who have never written such a book before, and they require more guidance. Sometimes their first drafts are just too scholarly.

  1. Internally, at Princeton University Press, what was the big budget on the full creation of all titles projected for this project and what is the initial print run of a single title? Tell us about one of the designers, and who came up with the design concept for the books in the series? Describe for us what a book looks like, and where can one of the books or even the whole series be found? Our local bookstore, for example? Are seminary libraries interested, or where? What about University libraries? Who are the book’s buyers or projected buyers and readers and do you know a reader, or have you a “model” of one? I am interested to know who reads religious books, especially Old and New Testament works.

Initial print runs vary from title to title. We tend to be rather cautious with first printings, reasoning that if a particular book attracts a bigger than expected following, we can always reprint. I’d say that initial print runs for this series range from 3,000 to 5,000 copies.

The design template for the series was developed by a talented designer at Princeton University Press – now retired – named Tracy Baldwin. We encourage our authors to suggest appropriate images for the front jackets. Because many of the books in the series focus on religious books that have inspired striking works of visual art, there’s often an embarrassment of riches to choose from.

The books in the series have a family resemblance, design-wise. They come in small packages – no book is more than 60,000 words in length. They can be found in fine bookstores everywhere, both Barnes & Nobles and in the finer independent stores. (They are more likely to be found in bookstores that carry books published by university presses and other academic publishers.) They can also be purchased, of course, on Amazon.com and on other on-line book retailers. Whether your local bookstore has copies in stock is a good question. If they don’t have any copies, you might want to ask them to place an order!

As for the projected buyers, please see my answer to #1, above.

  1. Please tell us what titles are in the series, when it will be completed, and some highlights on the Christian and Old Testament standouts. Especially, those that you favor.

Books in the series that have already been published:

  • Augustine’s Confessions: A Biography
-- Garry Wills
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison: A Biography
-- Martin E. Marty
  • The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography
--Alan Jacobs
  • The Book of Genesis: A Biography
-- Ronald Hendel
  • The Book of Job: A Biography
-- Mark Larrimore
  • The Book of Mormon: A Biography
-- Paul Gutjahr
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography
-- John J. Collins
  • The I Ching: A Biography
-- Richard H. Smith
  • The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography
-- Donald S. Lopez, Jr.

Forthcoming Books in the series:

  • The Book of Exodus
-- Jan Assmann
  • The Book of Revelation: A Biography
-- Timothy Beal
  • The Analects of Confucius: A Biography
--Annping Chin & Jonathan D. Spence
  • The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography
-- Richard H. Davis
  • Josephus's The Jewish War: A Biography
-- Martin Goodman
  • John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion: A Biography
-- Bruce Gordon
  • The Koran in English: A Biography
-- Bruce Lawrence
  • The Lotus Sutra: A Biography
-- Donald S. Lopez
  • Dante's Divine Comedy: A Biography
-- Joseph Luzzi
  • C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity: A Biography
-- George Marsden
  • The Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas: A Biography
-- Bernard McGinn
  • The Greatest Translations of All Time: A Biography of the Septuagint and the Vulgate
-- Jack Miles
  • The Passover Haggadah: A Biography
-- Vanessa Ochs
  • The Song of Songs: A Biography
-- Ilana Pardes
  • The Daode Jing: A Biography
-- James Robson
  • Rumi's Masnavi: A Biography
-- Omid Safi
  • The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography
-- David Gordon White
  • The Talmud: A Biography
-- Barry Scott Wimpfheimer

The forthcoming titles will be rolled out 1-2 per year, on average. Next up, in spring 2014, are David Gordon White’s book on the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali and Bernard McGinn’s book on the Summa Theologiae.

As for which ones I most favor: that’s too hard of a question. I love them all!

  1. Talk to us about your own career a little, where did your love of books and of religion spring from and what is your personal and scholarly taste in books found? Of the series, which titles intrigue you, and which picks are your favorites, and why? Is there an author in the group of so many who is a favorite of yours? This is a little like, what is your favorite color.

I have a scholarly background myself, having completed a Ph.D. in political science and political theory at McGill University in Montreal almost two decades ago. What interested me most of all in my studies was the history of ideas; where ideas come from, how they take hold in particular societies and cultures, and how certain views seen as self-evidently true in certain places and at certain types lose their hold on people’s imaginations as circumstances change. Certainly the way religious books are read and understood change enormously over time. This series explores these changes with respect to certain landmark books in our major religious traditions.

Here again, it’s hard for me to play favorites. I can tell you how gratified it’s been to work with scholars whose writing I’ve admired for years – Garry Wills, Marty Marty – and how much I look forward to working with other distinguished scholars who have signed up for the series: Jack Miles, Annping Chin & Jonathan Spence, Martin Goodman, and Jan Assmann. But I also find it enormously gratifying to help younger, less experienced scholars find their voice and attract a broader readership for the first time, such as Mark Larrimore and Paul Gutjahr (who wrote a very well received volume on The Book of Mormon).

HERE ENDS THE INTERVIEW WITH FRED APPEL AND THE INTRODUCTION TO THE SERIES, ‘LIVES OF GREAT RELIGIOUS BOOKS’

HERE BEGINS SOME NOTES AND COMMENTS ON ALAN JACOB’S WORK ‘THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER: A BIOGRAPHY’

Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the honors program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He has been called a top professor in America, so says an article about him found here:

http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2013/07/the-power-line-100-alan-jacobs.php

The article says about him, “It was big news last fall when Baylor University’s honors program hired Alan Jacobs away from Wheaton College, where Jacobs had been a prominent fixture as the Clyde Kilby Professor of English for nearly 30 years. (Check out his useful home page here.) Jacobs is much in the mold of C.S. Lewis, combining a grounding in classical thought and literature with an interest in modern writers and contemporary perspectives (especially on technology).” So we begin to write about his writing the book that one reader told me was a scholarly piece of good and proper worthwhile subject development and interest to her as reader, but lacked as much fire and passion as she would have liked. That she missed to a degree, but not enough to put the book aside. So she continued, still interested enough to be happy she had the book to read. This is good remark for a book of this kind, so let us not diminish the author too much. It is a cool enough read.

This work that Alan Jacobs brings to understanding in The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography is a work with which I am as a man who attends Church in the Episcopal tradition familiar. After all, the Eucharist is offered on Sundays in the Parish I attend each, and I am usually a regular attendee, and one who attempts to pay attention during the worship service. In fact, as a believer this Religion Writer can be personal in an assessment of the work by Professor Alan Jacobs of Baylor University, and there is little way not to be involved in the narrative history of this distinctive and useful study meant for the informed and even educated reader for whom this title is meant, as is the series of which it is a part published by Princeton University Press.

Allow me as a Religion Writer a moment to gain some distance on the subject of worship as I know it, and the elements of living a more faithful, even religious life in the midst of the secular American society of Northern California and especially Marin County as I have experienced it--within the very upscale and shall I admit it Christian community of 200 or so congregation members who gather intermittently to hear various words and even on their own read from this 1979 American Prayer book on their own. It is a lucky thing to get a book like Professor Alan Jacob’s “The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography”, for it is imaginable that the educated class who are both Episcopal and not will find it a fine source of education and information for finding out about this faith and its practices. Yes, let us call this a religious title of enormous resources for a very large variety of purposes of practice.

The author has gone through so many areas of history and areas of thought in the work to let us know about them. And about the history of this book that goes back centuries to England. For after all, it is English in making and Anglican in kind in a worldwide manner. One Chapter talks of the language used in the book, and he starts it by starkly remarking, “The ‘somberly magnificent prose’ of the prayer book remains its single most striking feature. It is highly rhythmical and consistenty reliant on Latinate structures, but it borrows from biblical Hebrew a deep allegiance to parallelism.” He offers some longer quotations of language from the text, as in use of confessional text and language from the 1552 book, also, to illustrate points.

The distinguished scholar Alan Jacobs is certainly a man of the mind, and his list of conversation, debate, and discussion as listed with others of his level is found on the internet by Googling his name or checking out Atlantic Monthly conversations through the same means. He is a man of distinction in the sense of his ability to communicate in writing, and not to belabor the matter, he’s done a fine job with this book, at least to this man’s taste who did look through the title and was interested in finding the sections on history and those on the Eucharist, also known as Communion.

This book by Alan Jacobs is one in a series called “Lives of Great Religious Books,” by Princeton University Press and its Fred Appel who at the time of its creation conceived of the series.

In this article, the pleasure of speaking with Alan Jacobs was not found, for he chose to discuss matters with this Religion Writer through email, much of his answer by pointing to his blog, and through a Princeton University Public Relations woman. Questions submitted in writing as an interview were answered in writing through Public Relations by him personally. This email statement on the book by him is an example of the kind of answer he gave by writing:

“My own view about my book is that it's probably a little better suited to the British audience than to the American, since it's the English BCP that I mainly discuss. I try to talk about developments throughout the world, but the lion's share of the attention goes to the English books, followed by the American ones.”

I myself have been an Anglican for nearly 30 years, and I never want to be a part of any other tradition. I am relatively conservative in my theological views, but I do not share the passionate commitment to the 1662 BCP, or in America the 1928 one as "the last *real* prayer book.

Those are wonderful books, but I think the scholarly and pastoral work on developing liturgies that has accelerated since the 1960s has produced some really wonderful stuff. It has also produced *too much* stuff, too many options, but I don't know how that could have been avoided.

He adds in another email: “I will probably soon be posting some thoughts on my blog (http://text-patterns.thenewatlantis.com) — and I also have a tumblelog associated with the book, though that's largely photographs:

http://bookofcommonprayer.tumblr.com

This is what Alan Jacob’s says on his blog that is so interesting, and I think readers will agree, the Professor is an interesting man. One gets a taste of the kind of thing he has to say about his own book, a self-reflective moment that he calls “self-promotion.” Here are the words from his blog, and there the article ends:

My “biography” of the Book of Common Prayer is now available and I hope some of you will buy it. It was a great deal of fun to write — though I have to say, I found it extremely challenging to fit an extremely complex story into the relatively brief format of the series.

Speaking of the series, it’s a wonderful one, created by Princeton University Press’s religion editor, Fred Appel. Fred’s terrific idea was simply this: that all books, but in an especially interesting way religious books, have lives: their story really only begins when they appear, and develops over centuries or millennia as readers encounter and respond to them.

The Book of Common Prayer, unlike many other books in the series, constitutes something of a moving target because it has been revised several times and has given birth to prayer books in countries other than England. I have tried to trace some of those ramifying lines of development, though my chief emphasis has been the English book.

I loved working on this book because it gave me the chance to write about so many things that fascinate me: the Anglican tradition of which I have been a part for almost thirty years; the visual, aural, and written forms of worship; ecclesiastical controversy; literary influence and linguistic echoing; and, not least, the history of books and book-making (though I had to confine a good bit of that to an appendix).

And on that last point: this is my third time working with Princeton University Press, and of all the publishers I know they are the most devoted to the craft of bookmaking. The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography is at the very least a very beautiful little book — as were the two Auden editions I have also done for PUP, For the Time Being: A Christian Oratorio and The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue. I own a great many e-books, but these you’ll want to have in paper and boards if at all possible.

One more thing: you might want to check out my tumblelog devoted to the book — it has some lovely images and even a few relevant words.