On reading the Bible

When I read, I like to make an orgy of it, especially on a rainy winter’s day, curled up in my armchair in front of the glowing embers of a log fire. One book is not enough, I want to be surrounded by them, drawn into their world where time and space are condensed into bound pages. I want to be immersed, to find treasure, to transmute my mind from base metal into gold. In fact, my reading is more idea than reality. When I do read with this level of eagerness, it rapidly stimulates my own ideas, perhaps to become one with the author, perhaps to start some intellectual quarrel with him (it’s usually him), so that I have to put the book down, and do something else. When the hero of Martin Amis’ Money forces himself to read Orwell’s Animal Farm to impress his girlfriend, the intense effort requires medication in the form of strong drink, which sends him into a several days’ orgy of which he has no recollection later, though there’s evidence of several brothels and drunken scenes. My own “orgy” of reading is pure hyperbole and can’t compete with John Self’s, but the amount of time I actually spend devouring sentences, paragraphs and pages may be equally sparse in any given sitting. Furthermore I don’t have a log fire, nor the kind of armchair that you can curl up in. From this you can deduce that even a non-fiction writer cannot restrain himself from untruthfulness. Moral: beware of believing anything you read.

The attached photographic evidence (if you can believe that) shows the various books I have currently in a half-read state, complete with bookmarks. After recently declaring that I won’t translate any more Camus, I immediately thought, “What the hell, I will translate more Camus!” I like the provocative things he has to say, but to appreciate them, I need to proceed at the snail’s pace that literary translation demands. It suits my style actually. It gives the opportunity to undertake endless edits later, by way of apology for the initial slapdash rendering (my New Year’s resolution being to go on being the way I am, only more so.) Amis’ Pregnant Widow is his latest novel, and it’s all about—well let me quote from the blurb: “Summer 1970. Sex is very much on everyone’s mind. The girls are acting like boys and the boys are going on acting like boys.” Then there’s The Idiot, part of my plan to read Dostoyevsky’s major novels in the correct order. The Passion of the Western Mind, by Richard Tarnas, comes from the library, so I shall have to try and get through it in the next three weeks.

However, the book which currently excites me most is the Bible, more specifically The Bible Designed to be Read as Literature. It’s a beautiful edition, well-bound and typeset to the highest standard. Its title reminds me that this book is literature. I don’t have to be Christian, Jew or anything else to read it. The layout, and introductory notes to each part, provide consistent support to the sense of detachment which I consider essential to approaching the content. Elsewhere in this blog I’ve spoken of the Bible as a ritual or magic object, holy by definition but intimidating as to its content. The intimidation mainly comes from that cultural strain which insists that I consider it as Holy Writ, my shield and breastplate to overcome the travails of this world. Lay that on me, and I demur, rejecting its cruel and biased God. But present it to me as literature, and I recall my own heritage.

This very edition was the one I learned Bible stories from, aged 8 to 11 at boarding school*. We went through the major stories, all presented in the text of the King James version, but in chapters and paragraphs like a book, not in numbered verses. Some was prose, some was verse. I know those stories. I want to revisit them. So I started with the first book of Samuel, for it’s the one I remember most vividly. In gratitude for being granted a son when she thought she was barren, Hannah with her husband’s agreement sends her firstborn Samuel to the household of a holy man, Eli, as soon as he is weaned. I remember vividly how the boy Samuel goes to Eli several times in the middle of the night:

And the Lord called Samuel again the third time. And he arose and went to Eli, and said, “Here am I; for thou didst call me.”

And Eli perceived that the Lord had called the child. Therefore Eli said unto Samuel, “Go, lie down: and it shall be, if he call thee, that thou shalt say, ‘Speak, Lord; for thy servant heareth.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

So? What is so special about it? All those years of my midlife, when I’ve stayed in a lonely hotel room with just a Gideon Bible for company, I’ve never thought to read it. It was alien to me, as alien as that group of Gideons, whoever they may be, who have devoted themselves to printing and distributing those books, which I never found in a state that indicated a reader had ever opened them.

More sacred is the memory of one’s own childhood. And so this edition, that I bought the other day via Amazon, used but in excellent condition, is as close to me as my own genetic code, and a thousand times more legible. And now I find myself wishing I could find a Bible-reading buddy to share experiences. Evangelical Christians need not apply. It wouldn’t be fair. They’d be thinking they could make a convert.

I shall try to share the experience with my reader. Perhaps like me, you as an adult can peer through the child’s eyes to obtain a double vision: what was seen then and what is seen now; thus tying up a loose end, reconciling one’s whole existence. A big task, takes the entire lifetime.

* Merrion House, Sedlescombe



6 thoughts on “On reading the Bible

  1. I do this also, sir!

    “When I do read with this level of eagerness, it rapidly stimulates my own ideas, perhaps to become one with the author, perhaps to start some intellectual quarrel with him (it’s usually him), so that I have to put the book down, and do something else.”

    I rarely point to something I have written, as it seems like a sad form of self-promotion. However, it so happens that your article pointed my mind there.

    I just wrote this same thing, only instead of saying it happened, I wrote about the event specifically.

    I published this last week:


    If told of an actual debate I had with Ralph Waldo Emerson.

    “And now I find myself wishing I could find a Bible-reading buddy to share experiences. Evangelical Christians need not apply.”

    I highly recommend you post about what you read. I am considered by most to be an atheist, but I have a huge interest in the Bible. The cultural impact it made is what impresses me the most. I am currently preparing to write an article on Paul’s creation of modern Christianity, the genius of it, and how it differs from the Jewish attempt in many ways. The “logic” in Christianity is some of the most pronounced nonsense ever devised; and yet, it is embraced, by a large number of people. How did the early church fathers do it? Of course, I intend to suggest an answer.

    My lunchtime is over now, but one last thought: as you read the Bible, you will have thoughts, lots of them, probably more than you can process. Post them and we shall all be reading with you.


  2. Excellent idea, John. Actually I have already in my head started to compose a new post which does exactly as you suggest. It will record some reactions on starting to read the First Book of Samuel.

    And I eagerly await reading your conversation with Emerson and your forthcoming essay on how St Paul created Christianity.


  3. You are great writer, sir. I did something on your blog I have never done. From the main page, I pressed control P and printed out 48 pages. I will read them by candlelight tonight and be groggy and grumpy tomorrow morning. Listen for your name used as a curse word sometime around noon.


  4. I have been listening to James Naughty's compering of a BBC Radio 4 programme on the development of ther King James Bible, this week. It is a well prepared and researched programme, nicely, historically presented.

    My own favourite biblica event is the story of Ruth on which I once gave an assembly reading at school. While I have an affinity to the story because it connects with my own personal history in a dynamic manner, other biblical stories do not.

    We read the books of the bible at school, we discussed the stories, sometimes with vicars who regularly called into the school to check our religious education was actively happening in the C of E School I attended. For me they were stories with elements to be remembered for a near time, but a little later to be submerged into the deep recesses of my mind. They were connected to an educational establishment, not to my personal reading interests.


  5. Thanks John. I have actually distilled the blog into a draft book, which I can send you as a properly-laid out PDF document. (See recent posts Preface & Preface 2.) All I need is your email address. Is it on your blog?


  6. ZACL, you are right on all counts. The things we remember are those which resonate with us personally. And as my next post will say, one reads the Bible in a particular context, if one reads it at all; and this influences one’s attitude.


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