Friday, August 19, 2011

Our Must-Have New Bible is Very Old

As readers surely know, 2011 is the quatercentenary of the Bible translation variously known as King James or Authorized. We have been quite worked up about this, and continue to be. The KJV, as an English teacher assured us many years ago, is not merely one of the masterpieces of the English language, it is one of the two sources of modern English, giving us not only words and cadences, but figures of speech which we use each day without even thinking of them. (Our teacher identified the other source as Shakespeare, and she was right; upon mature reflection, we would add the Book of Common Prayer).

So, how does one celebrate this auspicious anniversary? Were our parish made up largely of native speakers, we might have arranged to read the book in public, as a sort of festival. But since, to be frank, many of the people with whom we work have to mull over each word of the CEV, we did not see how a public event might work. Instead, our observance has been largely private, and has consisted of spending money.

Publishers, you see, are not fools. They know that there is milk yet to be had from this most productive of all cows -- and this despite the KJV's surely disturbing lack of copyright. Our own purchases have included two Bibles so far, and may well extend to a third.

1) Our first purchase was Oxford's Quatercentenary Edition. This is a strange book, but one we quite like. It reproduces the text of the first printing, including errors, but keeping the spelling, pagination and even line numbering. It is not, mind you, a facsimile; the thing has been entirely re-typeset, in a Roman font. This is a good thing.

Why? Because the first printings of the KJV were marked by some typographical oddities: errors, naturally; but also the deliberate decision to print in black-letter type (think of the New York Times banner, but far more condensed). Black-letter fonts were meant to emulate the tight scribal hand in which late-medieval religious books were commonly written, but they were challenging to the eye even in their own time, and today have become slow going even for those of us who use them often.

Oxford's QE is a large book, although not nearly as large as the original. Despite being a modern artifact, it has been made to look old -- the type may be Roman, but it is still dowdy. It is bound in some nasty artificial material, which keeps the price down, and comes in a cloth-covered slipcase to keep it from slouching on the shelf. There is a useful essay by Gordon Campbell, whose book-length treatment of the KJV we would also like to read. The whole package is useful for scholars, attractive to look at, and fun without breaking the bank.

2) Our second purchase was from the Trinitarian Bible Society. We were alerted to the existence of these people by J. Mark Bertrand's brilliant Bible Design Blogg. Since 1831, the TBS has devoted its energy to printing and distributing the KJV, sans Apocrypha, as well as to defending and even publishing the so-called Textus Receptus. From a scholarly perspective, we think they're a bit cracked; the TR is an okay text, but we don't for a moment doubt that the KJV translation team, were they alive today, would avail themselves of the greater manuscript variety now available. And don't get us started on why the Apocrypha matter.

So the TBS is a bit ... quixotic. We still admire the seriousness with which they approach their work. A few years back, J. Mark raved about one particular TBS publication: the Windsor Text KJV. After lusting in our hearts for a while, we got on the phone and called a nice lady in England, who sent us one. It arrived soon after, and immediately became our everyday, sit-on-the-desk-by-the computer Bible.

Here's why: it's easy to read. The font is clear enough, and the paper white enough, for even Fr. A.'s aging eyes to read unaided. It is a bright, modern look, with nothing antiquarian about it -- not attractive, by any means, but easy to read. It is enclosed in a trim package, bound in leather, which slips easily into a bag and opens flat on the table.

Furthermore, the page is not cluttered by the things that annoy us in so many Bibles: pronunciation helps, cross-references, footnotes. Technically, a few references and notes -- along with chapter summaries -- might arguably be considered integral parts of the KJV text. (Thanks, QE, for making that point!) They're certainly useful, at least sometimes and to some people. But that doesn't keep them from slowing the reader down, every bit as much as archaic spelling.

On top of all this, our Windsor Edition has another feature which has already given us hours of delight: the Metrical Psalms, as authorized by the Kirk of Scotland in 1650. We knew they existed -- Old Hundredth, after all! -- but we had never really come across them before, all in one place. We had imagined that they would be tacky, sing-song schlock -- and some are. But not many.

3) So much for the Year of King James, right? Wrong. The other day, J. Mark's blog alerted us to something even more exciting: Cambridge's Clarion edition. It hasn't been published yet, but Bertrand has seen an advance copy, and is suitably impressed. This is something he (and we, and apparently many other people) have long hankered for: a single-column KJV, laid out like ordinary prose and poetry. (He also goes on and on about the binding, which is good, but as he says: I'd buy the thing if it were bound in cardboard.) Notes and references are on the outer margin.

There have been a few of these over the years. We even owned one, once, and bitterly regret giving it away. But they're hard to come by. And this one, as J. Mark sees it, is a new frontier in readability.

The double-column layout used in most Bibles is a practical way to save space, made necessary by the small type size a publisher needs to use if a Bible is to fit into one manageable volume. Most eyes just can't read five inches of 6-point type, over and over, without getting lost and tired.

But the fact is that double-column layouts are the domain of reference books. The books we read for pleasure are almost always laid out in a single column. What does it say about the way Christians think of the Bible that it is typically treated like a reference book instead of pleasure reading? That's not a rhetorical question, by the way.

You can't buy the Clarion edition yet, although Amazon is taking pre-orders. Costs an arm and a leg, and then another arm, but we fully intend to own one, sooner or later. We may even squeeze it in during the last days of the anniversary year. After all, Christmas is coming.

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