Book blog:

“I would love to read the biography of a book . . .”

posted by Ruth Braunstein

As part of our discussion of the “Lives of Great Religious Books” series out this March from Princeton University Press, I had the opportunity to talk to editor Fred Appel about how the series was “born.” Situating the books somewhere between reception history and popular memoir, he discusses the contested designation of some texts as “religious,” the importance of reaching the public, and the books he hopes will eventually be part of the series.

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Ruth Braunstein: During the launch event on March 24 at NYU, you told the story of how the series came about and how your thinking progressed as the idea developed. I think that our readers would enjoy hearing more about that process.

Fred Appel: Absolutely. As I mentioned in the course of the event, I can’t take credit for the conception of the series. The idea was suggested to me by Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit, who is now at the Institute for Advanced Study. In the early spring of 2005, when he was a visiting scholar at NYU Law School, we met for tea in the Law School faculty lounge and began a wide-ranging conversation about the state of the humanities. Somehow the topic turned to memoirs, and Avishai expressed the opinion that there are just too many of them out there, or perhaps he meant that there were not enough biographies of people whose lives he would want to read about.

And then he got very dreamy, looked up to the ceiling, and said in his very thoughtful way, “You know what I’d like to read? A biography of a great book—the story of its reception over time.”

That concept really resonated with me, and, of course, being the religion editor at the press, I got to thinking about a possible series of “lives of great religious books.” One thing led to another, and a series framework took hold. The series prospectus was eventually approved by the Princeton University Press editorial board, and then I was off to the races. I was able to begin commissioning books for the series—I’ve been doing so for the past four, five years, in fact, and I’m just delighted that the series has finally taken off, with the first three books now out and more on the way (perhaps two more toward the end of the next calendar year or the beginning of the year after that, and continuing in the years ahead). So, before long, we will have a wonderful little library of biographies of books.

RB: When you were first thinking through the idea of the memoir, or the biography, of a book, were there any particular texts that immediately emerged for you as ideal for the series?

FA: Well, I knew that I did not want to commission reception histories of academic books about religion. I decided that I did not want to commission, for instance, a biography of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism or William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, though those both would be valid and potentially quite interesting projects.

I wanted to commission books that would tell the story of living, breathing religious books, books that have either sacred meaning or some deep spiritual resonance with lots of people, both in the past and, hopefully, today. Books that have not died. Of course, not every book that is born lives a long life. Publishers know all too well that many of them just don’t make it past infancy or early adolescence. For one reason or another, they’re not taken up by the reading public, don’t capture people’s imagination, or aren’t perceived as original or interesting enough—and they fade. Every publisher has the sad experience of giving birth to books like that, to keep with the obstetrical metaphor. But the books that are the objects of this series are those that continue to live. I wanted quite a broad range, from ancient books to modern books. Rereading Michael Walzer’s wonderful Exodus and Revolution helped me think through what I wanted. There Walzer explores the various ways in which the liberationist theme of the Book of Exodus has resonated throughout Western history, particularly in the American civil rights movement. That was a really interesting precedent, and I wanted to find authors, like Walzer, who could write accessibly and engagingly for general audiences who also have a range of competencies.

RB: Thinking now about contemporary political movements, there are obviously texts that are not explicitly religious but that take on a religious significance for some people—something like the pocket Constitution, for example, which is carried on the body and treated almost like a sacred text by some groups. How would something like that fit, or not fit, into the series, and why?

FA: The series is called “Lives of Great Religious Books,” and, as we both know, and as readers of The Immanent Frame know, the question of what counts as religious, and of what religion is, is contested—it’s a matter for debate and continuous discussion, just as the meaning of what we call secular is something that is subject to much debate and contestation right now.

So, what is a religious book? Some of the biographies I commissioned for the series are of books that are uncontestably elements of particular world religious traditions. The Book of Genesis and the Book of Job are clearly part of the story of Judaism and Christianity, and Islam, of course, to some extent. The Lotus Sutra is clearly a part of the Buddhist tradition. The Book of Mormon, obviously, is the foundational text of a particular modern American religious movement.

But we have also commissioned biographies of books whose status as religious texts has been contested. It’s not entirely clear that Confucius’s Analects is a religious text, or whether Confucianism itself is considered a religious tradition in China. Does the Chinese government—and do most Chinese people—consider Confucianism a religion? And what does it, and what do they, understand by religion? Things are changing in China in that regard. A young scholar named Anna Sun, who teaches at Kenyon College and is visiting the Institute for Advanced Study right now, is writing a book on the modern career of Confucianism as a world religious tradition. The shift from seeing Confucianism as a tradition of wisdom and personal cultivation, a sort of worldly philosophy, to seeing it as a type of world religious tradition has been an interesting one. The authors of the biography of the Analects for the series, Annping Chin and Jonathan Spence, agreed with me that the debates about whether it’s a religious text or not can and should be part of the story of the book and its reception. It’s the same story with another Chinese book that’ll be the subject of a biography in the series: the I Ching (Yijing).

RB: I think that speaks to the focus of the series, not on whether books are formally defined as religious by various authorities, but on how books are taken up in religious practice in different ways, and it seems like that emphasis fits in with a broader shift in thinking within religious scholarship toward a focus on practice and reception. Was that shift an influence on how you crafted the series?

FA: Yeah. I mean, some of the books that are subjects of biographies in the series have been embedded in religious practice for millennia. Various books of the Hebrew Bible, of course, have clearly played a part in religious practice. But what about Saint Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica? It’s not a devotional text, it’s not something that has been used in religious ritual, but it has been a tremendously important book of theology that, over the centuries, has helped philosophers and theologians think through some very basic questions about the nature of God and the nature of religious belief and practice.

I want the series to be broad enough to accommodate biographies of both types of books—those that have been important in helping us think through religious belief and practice, and texts that are actually used in religious practice. Even books as prosaic as the Passover Haggadah, which exists in countless editions in multiple languages, from beautifully bound, rare, sumptuously illustrated editions to photocopied sheets that have been sort of pulled together by households that didn’t like to use one particular standard Haggadah. We have a biography of the Haggadah on the list, and I’m now talking to a senior scholar and fine writer about a biography of the Book of Common Prayer, which, of course, is a foundational text in the Anglican tradition, and which arose in the seventeenth century and has been used in liturgy, marriage ceremonies, funerals, and all manner of religious practice to this day.

RB: Your comment about the Haggadah sheds light on one of the differences that one sees among the books in the series, that is, the difference between taking up a text that is produced and consumed in many forms—different translations and different editions—over the years and taking up a particular translation, like you have with the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Do you see an important difference between those two modes?

FA: I’ve actually commissioned a few volumes for the series that focus on the careers of particular canonical translations—translations that have become so famous and influential that they warrant separate volumes. The Septuagint and the Vulgate translations of the Bible are examples, and author Jack Miles, now at UC Irvine, persuaded me that the stories of those translations need to be told. He wants to tell them, so he signed up to write a biography that does just that.

I’m also talking to an accomplished scholar in Islamic Studies who wants to structure his biography of the Koran around its reception in the Anglo-American world. There have been umpteen translations of the Koran in English and other European languages since the seventeenth century, and, interestingly, for Orthodox Muslims, the Koran is not a text that ought to be translated. It is a sacred text bound up with Arabic, and other translations, in the Orthodox view, are not considered authentic. And yet there are many Muslims around the world today who read English versions of the Koran and gain spiritual sustenance from them in ways that Arabic speaking Muslims could scarcely have imagined in the past. It’s a phenomenon that’s worthy of attention; there are some really interesting stories associated with that development.

RB: This sort of treatment of a text, which embeds it in its context of use, can show how texts are used in ways that weren’t intended originally. Have you felt any pushback because of that—that is, against the idea that sacred texts are not above that kind of transformation through use?

FA: No pushback to speak of. But these are very early days in terms of the reception of the series. The first three books—by Marty, Lopez, and Wills—have just been released, and I’ve seen only a few reviews of them so far, as well as only one or two reviews of the series concept as a whole, and I haven’t encountered much pushback in the peer review. I wonder why.

RB: So, what were the main issues that were raised by the reviewers when you were first developing the series?

FA: Some of the scholars to whom I sent the initial prospectus wanted to see a series that wouldn’t be limited to biographies of great religious books in the Jewish and Christian traditions. I agreed with them. I wanted a more broadly representative series. So I have commissioned biographies of some really important books from among the Eastern religions: the Lotus Sutra, the I Ching, and the Analects. I’m in discussions with a scholar now, a very fine Sinologist, about a biography of the Daodejing—that’s a priority of mine. I’ve also commissioned a biography of the Bhagavad Gita. Richard Davis, a great scholar of South Asian religion at Bard College, is doing that one.

The scholars to whom I sent the initial series prospectus were also very supportive of the idea of short, accessible reception histories of these books, rather than very large, ponderous, encyclopedic Rezeptionsgeschichten. I mean, one can go through in a much more methodical and detailed way the reception of Saint Thomas’s Summa—there have been so many philosophical and theological commentaries on that book, and there are whole shelves and sections of libraries that have been filled with scholarly commentary and other forms of reception. To go through all of that would be of interest only to small circles of specialists and historians of medieval Christian thought, and that’s not the direction in which I wanted the series to go. So, in commissioning books and in recruiting authors, I’ve had that in mind first and foremost.

RB: Why is it that important that these volumes be publicly accessible? Is this a moment at which you think the public is particularly interested, or should be particularly interested, in this type of treatment?

FA: Well, it’s always fun for an acquisitions editor like me to commission books that have some resonance outside of specialized scholarly circles. Sure, I love to commission specialized monographs that are really significant and send disciplines and subfields in new and important directions That’s part of my mandate as an editor of a scholarly press. But for this series, I really wanted the books to serve the public, the broader educated reading public—readers who are curious about a particular religious tradition, but who may be too intimidated or simply too busy to pick up a primary text like Augustine’s Confessions or the Tibetan Book of the Dead, though they might be interested in getting a thoughtful, engaging entree into the nature of one of those books. And I’m also looking to spur interest in these world religious traditions through this series. So, a reader of a biography of Augustine’s Confessions might then wish to turn to the Confessions themselves, the primary text, or might wish to read more about the City of God or about the history of Christianity in late antiquity and relations between Jews, Christians, and Muslims during that period. I’m interested in providing accessible windows into these traditions, about which we certainly need to know more.

RB: Do you think that the series will also influence religious scholarship?

FA: Well, that’s an interesting question. There are some books and book series that are meant to serve as cutting-edge contributions to scholarship, that are meant to set an agenda and generate new questions within academia. Then there are other books and book series that are really meant to render existing scholarship more accessible to a broader public. And I actually see the “Lives of Great Religious Books” series in the latter category. The mandate of the authors is not to generate new theories about the origins of these texts, nor is it necessarily to create new, innovative interpretations of them. These books are meant to tell stories, stories that may well be known already by specialists but that are not widely known among the general public and may not even be known by practitioners of the religious traditions in question. So the series very much fits into the rubric of popularizing, rendering more accessible, important scholarship.

RB: Are there any books that you have not yet found an author to write about but that you hope eventually to include in the series?

FA: Oh, that’s a great question! As I mentioned earlier, I would love to commission an accessible, lively biography of the Daodejing, and I’m also looking for a biography of the Talmud. I’ve been talking to one or two people about that. It is a tremendously important book in the Jewish tradition, and one that has had a fascinating history, not just within Jewish communities in Europe, in the Sephardic world, and in this country, but also in the Christian and Islamic worlds. I would love to commission a biography of Exodus as well. The liberationist story has been so very important. Michael Walzer, as I mentioned, wrote an important book about Exodus from the perspective of political theory and the history of political thought, but I think it’s time for a new book, and perhaps one written from a different perspective. The Koran is of course something that I’ve been thinking about a lot as well. There are a lot of fine Koranic scholars out there, but the state of that field, or subfield, is such that most people are writing in very specialized modes, for other specialists. So finding someone who can write engagingly and accessibly for the general educated public is something of a challenge. But that’s what keeps me busy, and that’s what makes it fun.

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