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The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books)
Princeton University Press, 2013
256 pp., $24.95
What's a Prayer Book for?
My mother, now with the Lord, used to have a stack of devotionals that she would work through systematically. An old-guard evangelical, and without any Anglican tendencies that we could detect, she did not mind having The Book of Common Prayer occupy an honored place in that stack. In the English-speaking world, that book has had this unique kind of universal appeal for some time now.
But it got there by a circuitous route, and Alan Jacobs gives us a very deft accounting of that wending trail. His role in this all began when someone at Princeton University Press had the great idea of releasing a series of biographies … of books. Other books to receive this treatment have been the Dead Sea Scrolls, Augustine's Confessions, and the Book of Job. Forthcoming books in this series will include Calvin's Institutes, C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, and the Bhagavad Gita. This is obviously not possible to do with all those modern books of ours that have the publishing life-cycle of a fruit fly, but when a book spans many years or even centuries, it becomes possible to tell the story of that book's life.
Before turning to the life of that honored Prayer Book, I should say a word or two about Jacobs' writing. One of the marks of great literature—which The Book of Common Prayer most certainly is—is that it provides us with the pleasure of seeing how it can inspire others to love and good works. Alan Jacobs is the kind of writer who polishes clear glass windows, and they are very easy to look through. His prose is engaging, interesting, and pellucid, largely because he doesn't use words like pellucid. In this book, he writes about a book that has established many of the cadences of the modern English language for us, and he does so as someone who understands and loves those cadences. This is a good book, about a worthy subject, and is well written.
The BCP was born in 1549, with the great Thomas Cranmer as midwife attending. He was an interesting man embedded in an ...