Pocket Canon (KJV)

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Blandness and kitsch are the Scylla and Charybdis between which any attempt at an innovative Bible design must navigate. You can drop text into double columns, print on thin, white paper, and slap a plain black cover on, and you’re guaranteed to have something that looks the part, in the way a bunch of groomsmen in rented tuxes do. They don’t look great, but you know what they’re supposed to be. Or, you can throw restraint to the wind and offer a line-up of crazy looks that look better suited to Mardi Gras than the typical church service. The tuxes still look rented, but they’re pink with ruffled shirts. To me, neither option is particularly satisfying. I want to see some design sense applied to the Good Book, but that doesn’t mean I want to jettison all sense of aesthetic taste.

Which is why, nearly a decade later, I’m still impressed with the Pocket Canon.

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These slipcased sets, published in two series by Grove Press in the US and Canongate in the UK, each feature an assortment of books from the Bible. The text is from the King James Version, set in a readable single column with poetry set in verse. The introductions, which helped garner a lot of press for the project at the time, are by writers and artists like E. L. Doctorow, Doris Lessing, Barry Hannah, P. D. James, Ruth Rendell — and, of course, Bono.

Jonathan Keats, writing for Salon.com, thought the Pocket Canon was sure to infuriate fundamentalists:

“They’re called “Pocket Canons,” and they’re priced at $2.95 apiece. Each one has a celebrity introduction (by E.L. Doctorow, Charles Frazier, Doris Lessing, Kathleen Norris and Bono, among others), followed by the King James text, from which not a single thy, thou or thine has been omitted. They’re slimmer than a Palm Pilot, and not much bigger all around. In England, where nearly a million copies have sold, the fundamentalist Christian set is already screaming bloody sacrilege. One can only imagine how their New World brethren will react as the American edition hits bookstores — 24 shopping days shy of Christmas — on Dec. 1, 1999.

“Probably it won’t make much difference what they say: Even the planned first printing of 600,000 should be enough to put a Canon in the pocket of every post-ironic street cynic from Manhattan to San Francisco. Lauren has me thinking — now she says she wants to trade me my Gospel for a drink, which she points out is twice as expensive — that the fundamentalists should be nothing short of terrified. The most radical approach since Gutenberg: If infidels like Lauren start reading the Bible, if this Jesus character catches on the way that, say, Harry Potter has, mankind’s greatest work of literature — the cornerstone of Western culture and of Judeo-Christian morality — may just be freed from the hands of bigotry before Patrick Buchanan manages to shut the library doors for good.”

Freeing the Bible from fundamentalists was a big concern, I guess. Personally, the only “fury” I felt was that the entire King James Version wasn’t available in this format. At the time, it was the only paragraphed, single-column game in town. And there was no denying they looked great. I think Keats hits on an explanation, too:

“Packaging a Bible to fit the churchgoer sensibility is like preaching to the converted. More crucial, translations into a familiar vernacular make Jesus sound like the idiot savant pseudo-Messiah he almost certainly was and lend God all the apparent moral authority of, say, Rudolph Giuliani. Biblical stories simply don’t work when the players are mortal, life-size, familiar. Told in remedial English, the miraculous sounds inane.”

By approaching the Bible as a literary masterpiece and its form as a design challenge, the Pocket Canon team was miles from bland — but miles from kitsch, too. The staid old bonded leather tragedies that were the market staple back then reflected an attempt to “package a Bible to fit the churchgoer sensibility”; but today’s obnoxious, inelegant incongruities are, too. But I’ll leave the cultural criticism for another time. What I see when I look at the Pocket Canon design is an attempt to approach a vastly important text by means of a thoroughly modern idiom. In addition to that, unlike so many settings of Scripture, they look as if they’re meant to be read.

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The Pocket Canons always put me in mind of Penguin 60s and 70s, the bite-sized booklets featuring fiction and nonfiction that the granddaddy of the paperback released as a commemorative. Reading the book of Hebrews? Instead of toting around a full-size Bible, or a tiny one with the text compressed to microdot proportions, you can pull the Pocket Canon edition out of the slipcase, skim over Karen Armstrong’s introduction (or skip it entirely) and dive right in. It’s such a convenient way to read through the Bible that I’m surprised it hasn’t caught on.

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The introductions are the sticking point, I imagine, for some Christians. In the Salon review, Keats makes a big deal about the fact that Charles Johnson, who writes the introduction to Proverbs, is a Buddhist. But I appreciate the fact that authors from a variety of perspectives were asked to interact with the Bible, to take it seriously — and even to keep in separate in their minds from the image in their minds of Christians today. The last thing I’d want is for the Bible only to be discussed and written about by Christians. Plus, how many readers are gullible enough to take everything they might read in an introduction as Gospel? I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the introductions, particularly Barry Hannah’s intro to the Gospel of Mark. “The message of Mark is heartening to bad Christians such as myself,” he writes. So much so that it inspires him to compose a poem.

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A few years after they appeared on the market, once the initial furor died down, I found a cache of Pocket Canons in the remainder stacks at Half Price Books, including the Song of Solomon (intro by A. S. Byatt) and twenty copies of Ecclesiastes (Doris Lessing). An idea formed in my mind. Why not teach a study of Ecclesiastes, which has always been a favorite of mine, and hand the booklets out to the students? The cashier gave me an odd look as I snapped up so many copies of the same title, but I was too excited to care. In the end, the study never came to fruition. But who knows? Perhaps it will some day. When it does, I’ll be ready.

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At first, what draws your attention is the covers. Then you check out all the luminaries who contributed introductions. The novelty wears off, though, and the aesthetic blends. You don’t notice it so much; but you notice how unappealing other, more expensive projects are in comparison. What stays with you is all inside. Once you open the booklet, you encounter the King James text in a way many people never do. In its paragraphed form, it reads in a way it never does in the two-column, verse-by-verse settings so many of us grew up with. The difficulty diminishes and rich cadences emerge. Reading becomes a pleasure.

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For me, the Pocket Canon has become a touchstone both for design and readability. There is nothing technically challenging about the form. They’re just inexpensive paperbacks. Compared to a hot pink synthetic leather cover with faux ostrich trim, they don’t represent much of a financial investment for the publisher. But they clearly deliver more benefit. What would you prefer? Good design brought to bear on an inexpensive format, or a truly tasteless splurge. We have plenty of examples of the latter. The Pocket Canon points to a different path.

7 Comments on “Pocket Canon (KJV)

  1. I bought Ecclesiastes at Powell’s in Portland the last time we did camp out that way, and found Job at a used bookstore here in Phoenix. I think its a brilliant idea to make each book available individually. My english professors in college both decided to forego the usual Norton anthologies in favor of individual volumes. Not only were we spared the excessive weight in our backpacks, but I find anthologies to be more intimidating and individual volumes much more inviting.

  2. I really like the cover photography, very intruiging, they did a nice job with that.
    Also interesting that by breaking the Bible up into the individual books the way the Scriptures always were before the Protestants bound them into a single anthology caused such a stir.
    I will also put in a plug for those interested in a single paragraph style Bible: Check out the Third Millenium Bible http://www.tmbible.com I find the layout to be exceptionally readable.
    However, I will forwarn the members of this forum to not bother with their “leather bound” edition, it is very unsatisfying. I’d go for getting the hardcover and sending it off for a re-bind instead.

  3. I don’t know why packaging the books individually would be controversial. Commentaries are written on individual books, and no one raises a stink about that. There are New Testament editions that only include a portion of Scripture, and some publishers do one-offs of, say, the Psalms or the Gospel of John. As Jacob points out, it’s a very convenient format for readers.

  4. To my taste, an edition like this is nothing short of appalling! I strongly dislike cheap paperbacks and that is true if we are talking about the Bible, Homer or even The Hobbit. I am the sort of person who would rather not buy a book as have it in some cheap mass market edition in which the pages will begin to bio-degrade before I am done reading it.
    If there is a book that I really care about, I look for a Folio Society edition, if that can’t be found a well made hardback will do. At the very least I would want a well made paperback that I can expect to last longer than a pair of socks.
    I also fail to see how publishing the Bible in a format like this somehow makes it more accessible to the general public. I refuse to believe that the average person has been so dumbed-down by our public education system that they will not read a book that is properly bound. Am I being naive?
    I think a lot of Bono, love his music and admire him for using his success to try to make the world a better place. However, whaen I read that one of the books of the Bible had an introduction by Bono I was reminded of a Homer Simpson quote: “Rockstars, is there anything they don’t know?”
    I hope all of that didn’t sound like a rant. If you like this edition, I am fine with that and I do have a few positive things to say about it. First the cover photographs are striking, the ones for Job, Isaiah and John I think very much capture a moment in those books. Second, I think using the King James Version for what in many cases could be a person’s first exposure to the Bible is a sound idea. Such a person would have been exposed to a few sections of the Bible and I believe that if they were to read John 3:16 or Psalms 23 in some other version they might be just a little put off when they discover it is not worded quite the same. Third, the publisher does seem to have the idea of placing the Bible in the hands of those who have not yet read it, that is always a noble goal.

  5. I got a boxed set of these last night at a used bookstore for seven bucks, and started with Corinthians, which we’re currently reading in a lay theological formation class I’m taking. I find it remarkable how much that simple change in form already makes.
    First, the paragraph layout is really much more readable. I do have trouble sometimes with my Allan Longprimer with its traditional verse layout. I often read the same passage over and over again, because the words on the page don’t sink in, my eyes somehow glaze over them. I thought my trouble was the language, but it turns out it’s largely the layout. I don’t know what it is, but I wouldn’t have expected paragraphed text to make such a difference.
    Breaking the Bible up into individual books also has a remarkable effect. It reminded me that the Bible ultimately consists of a long series of documents written in many disparate times and places by many people, and were only collected together between two covers very late in the game. The Old Testament was a pile of scrolls, and the “canon” to some extent depended on which ones one happened to have on hand. Witness the Apocrypha. One group of Jews had them, another didn’t, and in the end it was decided to leave them out. The collection of books in the box is incomplete. I’m guessing that few places had a full collection of the Scriptures, give how rare and expensive scrolls were. The Epistles were of course letters, a single document that the recipient(s) got “in the mail,” which they read by itself before much of “Scripture” had been written. It does seem to make a difference reading Corinthians in a little booklet by itself, without the weight of the rest of Scripture in the hand to refer to, wedged between Romans and Galatians. Today I’m only carrying Corinthians; the Corinthians only had “Corinthians.” The Bible was a library before it was a book, once a series of scrolls any one only loosely connected to others on a shelf, just these booklets are loosely connected in a box.
    I’m not questioning the integrity of scripture of course, or saying that they shouldn’t be collected together in some exquisitely bound tome (I certainly now have enough of those). However, having the books of the Bible in a random pile on my bed and rearranging them in the box gave me a different relationship to the Scriptures (plural). I reflexively put them back in the box “in order,” but then thought, why? And then, why is that “the order” in the first place? These certainly won’t replace my tomes, but they’ve already open a different way of looking at the Bible. I have no idea how successful they were at popularizing the King James Bible, but for me they’ve already been a good, cheep experiment.

  6. Can anyone comment on the status of this series? There’s the 1st boxed set with 12 “volumes” and a 2nd with 10. Are more coming? The Wikipedia entry hasn’t been updated for a while and the grovepress.com website is not cooperating with me.

  7. This looks very cool. Is there any way to buy individual Bible books in other versions, such as ESV?

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