Monday, January 2, 2012

Manifold Disappointments

I just now got around to reading the June 2011 issue of Harper's Magazine, whose cover promised "King James, Revised: History's Best Seller Turns 400." This had been sitting in my pile of things for a while now, and I was glad to have some time over the Christmas break to give it a look.

I should have just left well enough alone. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I think it involved some form of actual historical/literary discussion of, you know, the King James Bible. Whatever I expected, this was not that.

"Harper's Magazine marked the quadricentennial of the King James Bible by inviting some of our finest poets and novelists to select a verse or short passage from the translation and respond to it, with no restrictions on the form of response," says the introductory blurb [p. 33]. The panel of seven contributors consists of Paul Guest, Benjamin Hale, Dan Chiasson, Marilynne Robinson, Charles Baxter, John Banville, and Howard Jacobson.

I tried. I really did. But "no restrictions," in this case, was a recipe for disaster and disappointment. Of the lot, only Robinson's contribution (one page of prose) comes close to a satisfactory engagement. Her piece serves both as a meditation on the peculiar language of the KJV (she reflects on the phrase, "The twinkling of an eye") and how that language is largely the inheritance of the KJV from a handful of other vernacular English versions preceding it. The piece is erudite, informed, and all too brief.

All to brief especially in light of the space taken by the other contributors. Three are poems. The other three (Jackson's "A Mirror Up to Nothing," Banville's "Absalom Dies," and Hale's "Lower than the Angels") are each a tired rendition of Hitchens-esque agnosticism. Hale reminds us that "the one English book more important than the King James Bible" is, of course, Darwin's On the Origin of the Species. Um. Okay. Yawn.

I love Harper's. Given that this was the cover story, and that I usually am so edified by what I find beneath their covers, I was left shaking my head a bit. Is this the best they could muster? To honor what is arguably (ahem) the most important book in English? (Apologies to Messrs. Darwin and Hale.) I honestly expected a lot more, and a lot better, than what they offered.

No comments: