- Words, Words, Words
What do you read, my lord?—“Hamlet” Act II, Scene II [End Page 952]
Over the past decade, we have witnessed the arrival of a new generation of handbooks—as opposed to dictionaries (e.g., von Stuckrad 2005), encyclopedias (e.g., Jones 2005; Betz et al., 2006), and even essay collections on the field (e.g., Antes et al., 2004). These handbooks owe something to Critical Terms for Literary Study (Lentricchia and McLaughlin 1990; 2nd ed. 1995), a hard-hitting (though, admittedly, still largely “Western” in its focus) source for essays on such common lit crit topics as author, canon, discourse, text, etc. In turn, it is likely Raymond Williams’s Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, first published just over thirty years ago ( 1983; Bennett et al., 2005), that lies in the background of this genre’s recent emergence. For those unfamiliar with it, Keywords’ succinct entries not only trace the history of usage but also consistently inscribe terms such as aesthetic, elite, history, popular, etc. within a coherent theoretical approach (in his case, Marxist literary/culture theory). Despite the obvious difficulties of accomplishing such coherency in any multi-authored work, Critical Terms for Literary Study is useful precisely because it unfailingly treats “literature” as a datum in need of theorization rather than an expressive gift whose meaning needs only to be interpreted and appreciated.
In the Fall of 1996, with these two works in mind, Willi Braun and I set about planning our own users’ manual to the field (though we preferred to see it in the tradition of a field guide ).1 At the time, we thought that developing such a resource in the study of religion was a novel idea; however, as with many good ideas, we soon learned that we were not the first to arrive at the party, for Philip Quinn and Charles Taliaferro’s A Companion to Philosophy of Religion was then near publication (1997) and, not long after that, Mark C. Taylor’s Critical Terms for Religious Studies (1998) appeared. Soon, we also learned that John Hinnells, who had already edited other popular reference works (e.g.,  1997,  2003), was preparing a handbook of his own; after moving presses (something he mentions in his Introduction), it appeared as The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion (2005); just this past year, his edited handbook on ancient religions was also published (2007). Then, just over a year ago, Robert Segal’s The Blackwell Companion to the [End Page 953] Study of Religion hit the bookshelves (2006). So where there was once almost no up-to-date resource ready to accompany the student and the scholar of religion on their intellectual journey (which is why, perhaps—regardless what one thought of its structure and content—the publication of the first edition of Mircea Eliade’s Encyclopedia of Religion  was such a landmark event in the modern field), readers can now choose from a variety of willing and able companions.2 The question is: toward which destination are these various handbooks guiding us?
Given that the volumes under review have appeared over the course of a decade, this genre shows no signs of going away anytime soon. I say this because, given increased market pressures in academic publishing over the past decade, anyone who has recently pitched an idea to a press, or completed the marketing questionnaire when submitting a final manuscript for copyediting, knows that projects with possible classroom application grab the imagination of publishers now more than ever. Although they are hardly...