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 status of some texts as “religious,” the importance of reaching the public, and the books he hopes will eventually be part of the series.
Posts Tagged ‘Lives of Great Religious Books’
“The Lives of Great Religious Books,” a promising new series from Princeton University Press, debuted this month with three titles—Martin E. Marty’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, Donald Lopez’s The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography, and Garry Wills’ Augustine’s Confessions. On March 24, I had the opportunity to discuss “The Lives of Great Religious Books” with Professor Marty, Professor Lopez, and Vanessa Ochs, another author in the series, who is currently working on a biography of the Passover Haggadah. Above all, our conversation centered on the metaphor of a text’s biography, its purchase and limitations. Just as we might think of a human biography as a series of contexts linked together by a single individual, so too is the biography of a text a series of contexts linked by the text itself.
An old photograph provides a glimpse into a dismal cell at a Nazi prison called Tegel. Wan light falls in from a tiny window that is too high for a prisoner to use to take in a landscape, but one who is alert and sensitive might glimpse the upper branches of a high tree or a low hanging cloud, and through that opening, hear a thrush. A standard-issue plank bed with a blanket drawn tight over it takes up most of the small space in the cell and in the picture, and a board to which one could attach notices is on the unadorned wall. Other furnishings are sparse. We know from other sources than the photograph of the presence of a nearby stool and a bucket, positioned for we-all know-what. Guards, who were forbidden to talk to prisoners, could peer in through a slot in the door to view the inmate, who could not see out. Visitors today can still imagine something of what it must have been like for a captive to squirm or pace in its ten-foot by seven-foot floor space.
Confessions re-emerged into floodlit attention in the Romantic era of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, when it was read as a Bildungsroman riding on the popularity of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions (1782) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Sorrows of Werther (1774) and Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795). In 1888 Harnack would compare Confessions to Goethe’s Faust. The coming-of-age tale and sins-of-my-youth story made Augustine a byword for libertine-rake glamorization. Such is the reputation of Confessions that James O’Donnell said he first took up the book as a boy with the expectation that it had salacious things in it (for which, he added, he is still futilely searching). The “great sinner” myth has no basis in fact.