Do books have lives?
If they do, strange things possibly follow. They may die and—if sufficiently esteemed—require obituaries. Ordinary ones may have to settle for paid death notices. Could a book, or its author, purchase life insurance? The conceptual challenges seem endlessly intriguing.
Princeton University Press, to its credit, has decided to explore one such fey notion: the idea that great books deserve biographies, and readers will buy them if they’re done by top-notch biographers.
“Lives of Great Religious Books,” Princeton’s innovative project, is, according to the publisher, “a new series of short volumes that recount the complex and fascinating histories of important religious texts from around the world. Written for general readers by leading authors and experts, these books examine the historical origins of texts from the great religious traditions, and trace how their reception, interpretation, and influence have changed—often radically—over time.”
Well, they do—eventually. The first three compact volumes are Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ‘Letters and Papers from Prison’: A Biography by Martin Marty, Augustine’s ‘Confessions’: A Biography by Garry Wills, and ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’: A Biography by Donald S. Lopez, Jr.
With three marquee scholar-experts like that, it’s clear that Princeton isn’t fooling around, isn’t simply launching a series of low-profile secondary works. Forthcoming volumes are also impressive in conception, including Annping Chin and Jonathan Spence on The Analects of Confucius, and John J. Collins on The Dead Sea Scrolls. Someone up in New Jersey plainly wants to launch a distinctive, powerful genre.
Based on two of the first three volumes, however, the press may face a problem—too appealing an idea for scholars of specific works who are, inevitably, also bibliophiles. Marty and Wills find themselves so enthralled by the idea of the book as biographical subject that they strain to get past “the history of the book” to the content of the concrete book they’ve taken on.
Marty, the distinguished University of Chicago professor emeritus of religious history, has the hardest time reaching the matter at hand. For pages and pages, he writes as if his title were The Book: A Biography, or, to salute another series, Books for Dummies. Here’s a typical graph:
“Books, like authors, live and eventually die. To their publishers and writers, this dying is represented by a book going out of print, as some do in their infancy, within months. Others survive until overcrowded libraries deaccession and pulp them to make room for fresh publications. Today many books are likely to experience a second life on the Internet, in cyberspace. Books as we have known them also “die on the vine,” say booksellers when they cannot move them. Their vital life is gone when agents cannot interest media to nurture their reputation with publicity. They linger and then expire when reviewers pass them by and then pass them off to used-book shops that bury them in recycling bins. Some, alas, are stillborn and never attract sales and notice. Think of them as reposing in paupers’ graves. R.I.P.”
Yes, it’s true—some lives take a while to get started. Try beginning this one on page 31.
Garry Wills belabors the obvious less than Marty, but the Pulitzer-Prize winning historian, perhaps equally more entranced by a subject newer to his eye than old pal Augustine—Wills has previously published Saint Augustine: A Life and a translation of the Confessions—also starts out sounding as if he’d rather play Walter Ong or Roger Chartier than Garry Wills.
“Writing was a complex and clumsy process” back in the Bishop of Hippo’s era, we learn in one characteristic graph. “That was especially true in the classical period, when papyrus scrolls were used. One needed at least three hands to unroll the scroll on the left, to roll it up on the right, and to write a series of columns in the intermediate spaces. Besides, even the mixing of the ink and trimming of the reed pens (quills arrived in the Middle Ages) had to be done while the scroll was held open at the spot reached by the scribe. Since the rolls were written on one side only , they could run to great lengths, as much as thirty feet long.”
Wills, thankfully, kicks the book-historian persona quicker than Marty. Then he’s back to interpreting his text like cocky, provocative Garry Wills, declaring that Augustine’s Confessions has been misread as autobiography: “The whole book is one long prayer, perhaps the longest literary prayer among the great books of the West.”
Of Princeton’s trio of aces, however, it’s Lopez—the distinguished university professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies at the University of Michigan—who has best figured out the assignment. From page one, he grasps that it’s the particular book under his microscope, not “the book” sub specie aeternitatis, that he should be explaining.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s got a better “book” tale to tell than his teammates. As Lopez explains in his introduction, The Tibetan Book of the Dead “is not really Tibetan, it is not really a book, and it is not really about death.”
With those three propellers going for him and a wry voice to boot, it’s no surprise that ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’: A Biography vibrates with such strong writerly energy that some words end up shaken thisclose together (e.g., “Thisvision” and “discussionof”). Bad typesetting aside, Lopez’s study rocks as it establishes its subject as “a remarkable case of what can happen when American Spiritualism goes abroad.” Walter Evans-Wentz (1878-1965), the eccentric Theosophist from Trenton, New Jersey, who basically pulled The Tibetan Book of the Dead together, didn’t know Tibetan and never visited Tibet.
Is Lopez’s book a sly pathography about a “classic,” that genre coined by Joyce Carol Oates for biographies that concentrate mercilessly on a subject’s flaws?
As we said, thank you, Princeton, for getting us thinking…..
—Carlin Romano, Critic-at-Large