#219. CHECKING THE BOOKS. Princeton University Press over the last few years has been publishing an interesting series, “The Lives of the Great Religious Books,” short popular “biographies” of how the books came to be, their contents and contexts, the issues involved in reading them. I’ve now read three titles in the series, and what has struck me, aside from their intelligence and interest, has been how different they are each from the other, how specifically they seem tuned to the texts they examine.
In his work on the Book of Common Prayer, Alan Jacobs has taken me by surprise by showing not just the theological shape of the work but the degree to which it was a political project—an attempt to impose conformity on the Anglican church at a time before the separation of church and state (an idea which Americans grow up with and take for granted) had been so much as suggested. The law had a say in the most minute matters of liturgy: apropos of kneeling or standing for Communion, “A bodily posture had to be declared forbidden, or obligatory, or optional,” recalling the signs in T.H. White’s ant warrens, “Everything not forbidden is compulsory.” He goes on to the various editions and revisions, its publishers and printers, on to the new parish versions, computer-generated and run off weekly. Indeed, it ends with a wistful sigh: “While the Book of Common Prayer lives on in so many ways, its association with the crafts of bookmaking and type design may have effectively come to an end.”
In contrast, Vanessa L. Ochs’s book on the Passover Hagaddah moves, as one critic put it, “from its textual bricolage in the ancient world to its contemporary moment.” Or moments, because the latter half of the book delineates—celebrates—the immensely various forms the Hagaddah has taken on of late, as well as the ceremonies and prayers and dishes of the attendant rituals. Kibbutz Haggadot, post-Holocaust Haggadot, feminist and LGBTQ Haggadot, computer-generated and local versions, down to my favorite, one offered free with the purchase of a can of Maxwell House, to encourage the sale of the first kosher-for-Passover coffee. (Copies of this were in a friend’s collection of Haggadot, many of them locally, even family-made.) I’m sure this must make the more Orthodox scowl, but it also suggests an immense adaptability, the virtue so much praised and practiced in Jewish survival. Of the three books, Ochs on the Haggadah struck me as the most optimistic and amused.
Donald S. Lopez Jr.’s book on the Lotus Sutra is different again. He gives an admirable itinerary of the book’s voyage from India up into China, its Chinese translations, and its journey from there to Japan, where it had a specific cult following. Indeed, a good portion of the book is about Nichiren, one of those intense, narrow, and divisive figures that seem to turn up in every faith, and the story of him and his sect is one of the most contentious in Buddhist history. The Lotus occupies an unusual, almost anomalous place in the Buddhist canon; it is a strangely slippery, self-referential text, and at the end even Lopez, our guide, writes “But where, in the end, is the Lotus Sutra? It is a text marked by fissures and cracks… Is it a fractured whole, or is it assembled fragments? Perhaps it is a puzzle that can never be put back together.” Having been fascinated and baffled by the Lotus for forty years, this is the book of the three Princeton titles that has hit closest to home. It has not eased my bafflement, or my fascination, but it’s at least proven to me I’m in good company.
The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, by Alan Jacobs. Princeton, 2013.
The Passover Hagaddah: A Biography, by Vanessa L. Ochs. Princeton, 2020.
The Lotus Sutra: A Biography, by Donald S. Lopez, Jr. Princeton, 2016.