The 100 best nonfiction books: No 91 – The Book of Common Prayer (1662)

Oct 30, 2017 by

by Robert McCrum, Guardian:

In anticipation of English prose after the Commonwealth, I had initially found the temptation to include Robert Hooke’s extraordinary Micrographia (1665) next in this sequence almost overwhelming. This, after all, was a Restoration publishing sensation described by Samuel Pepys as “the most ingenious book that I ever read in my life”. But, with this series approaching its conclusion, space is at a premium and Hooke must join my list of regrets. Besides, The Book of Common Prayer is, arguably, the most influential and widely read book in the English literary tradition, from Cranmer to the Beatles.

The Book of Common Prayer emerged from medieval religious practice as a vernacular aid to devotion. The first prayer books with the Litany in English (probably the work of Thomas Cranmer) appeared in 1544, with decisive new editions in 1549 and 1552, both largely owed to Cranmer. In the words of one commentator, this book “has one of the most complicated textual histories of any printed book anywhere in the world… There were more than 350 different imprints before the date often referred to as the ‘first’ edition of 1662.”

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