Something arrived in the mail today that has me absolutely delighted.
A few years ago, I pledged a small amount in support of a project called Bibliotheca (“Library”), a special edition meant to encourage reading of the Bible as a library of sacred texts, rather than either a ponderous and tiny-font tome or a sort of theological dictionary. And meant to encourage engaged reading; these volumes, for example, excise the chapter and verse numbers, which didn’t exist in any of the original texts (and which often encourage all sorts of nonsense by arbitrarily breaking the text in odd places, carving stories, arguments, or letters into separate pieces, often making it more difficult to see alternate interpretations, as in the case of Romans 1-2, where an arbitrary chapter break separates what appears to be a typical Pauline paraphrase from the critique of the paraphrased idea that immediately follows it, with the unfortunate result that modern readers take the closing text of R1 as a sermon from Paul, use it out of context to justify homophobic feelings, and never read his dismantling of it in R2 at all…well, except for Shakespeare, who was an extremely smart reader and who read it and got it and made use of it in Lear).
These volumes make it more difficult to pluck up one verse all by itself without care for where it’s embedded, what follows it, what might contradict or clarify it. One reads the Bibliotheca the way one reads The Odyssey or a book of poems or The Lord of the Rings, taking each of the texts in the library as a whole thing, not as a compendium of quotable, usable, isolated segments. It looks more like a library to be explored and read than a user’s manual to be indexed and sifted.
If I’m reading a book of poems, it looks like a book of poems. If I’m reading a letter, it looks like a letter and I’m encouraged to read it as one. If I’m reading a song like the Shir Ha’Shirim, it looks like a song to read (there are better, more recent translations of that lovely text informed by more recent research, but that’s a quibble; this library wasn’t designed with me specifically in mind).
When reading The Odyssey or a short story by Edgar Allan Poe or a translation of a Buddhist text, you get lost in the book … you dive into that book’s world and get immersed in it. I love reading and getting immersed. A good book can immerse or baptize the imagination, can wake me up to a new world, or to looking at the world I already inhabit through new eyes.
But bibles are usually designed, unintentionally or otherwise, to prevent immersion. To prevent exploring the world inside the book, prevent knocking on the walls and finding what jumps out. We get trained to treat that particular library as a dictionary and not as a shelf-ful of beautiful, old, imaginative books.
The 5 volumes of Bibliotheca arrived in the mail for me today, and I am in a candy store, metaphorically. It is one of the two most beautiful editions I have ever seen (the other is the Pennyroyal Caxton and its more affordable facsimiles), and reading it is like reading these texts for the very first time, everything made new. Like a fresh breeze through the window. I’m thankful for it, delighted by it, and it has lifted my mood in a very dark month. Adam Lewis Greene, the book designer who created the Bibliotheca, has given the world a good gift. I may be reading a while.
P.S. Yes. I am a nerd. It is true.