The Common Good
May-June 2000

This guy walks into a bar

by Jonathon Keats | May-June 2000

Pocket Canons are the most radical approach to the Bible since Gutenberg. Or at least Ginsberg.

There’s this terminally hip bar, I can’t remember the name, and I’m drinking too much gin, smoking cigarettes that don’t belong to me, and—here’s my confession—reading aloud from The Gospel According to John. Those I’m reading to, they’re friends mostly, and friends of friends, and I doubt a single one of them believes any more than I do in God-the-Almighty, let alone in Jesus Christ. A blond girl named Lauren takes the book away from me, but only so she can read for herself. "It’s almost Ginsberg," she sighs.

I’ve been carrying John in my coat pocket all week, ever since it came in the mail from Grove Press, along with the three remaining gospels, Genesis, Exodus, and six more installments of the Bible, each individually bound in slick trade paperback. There was a press release, too. "The most radical approach to the Bible since Gutenberg," it said. And in that terminally hip bar, listening to Lauren read John 20:11, I begin to believe the hype.

They’re called Pocket Canons, and they’re priced at $2.95 apiece. Each one has a celebrity introduction, 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, nearly a million copies have sold.

Even the planned first U.S. 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. 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, humanity’s greatest work of literature—the cornerstone of Western culture and of Judeo-Christian morality—may just be freed from the hands of bigotry.

I’ll admit there’s something disconcerting about these Pocket Canons. They’re the approximate format of the City Lights Beat Poets series. The cover photos, done in the merciless black-and-white of downtown art photography—a deserted country road opens Exodus, while a huddled man lost in shadow hovers over Job—and the glossy cardstock on which they’re printed have about as much in common with the embossed leather preferred in Gutenberg’s day as the God of Abraham has in common with the God of Jesus. That Psalms is introduced by U2’s Bono, or even that Mark is prefaced by Barry Hannah, sounds like the opening of a none-too-promising "Saturday Night Live" skit. There’s a high-speed cultural collision happening here. The question is whether it’s a case of fusion—or fission.

I MEET GROVE/ATLANTIC editor-in-chief Morgan Entrekin at his downtown Manhattan office. What with his unshorn blond hair, Morgan could be a figure from the Bible, an Old Testament prophet perhaps, albeit one in new testament jeans. In addition to the Pocket Canons, this season Grove will publish books by William S. Burroughs, Dennis Cooper, and Darcey Steinke—hardly Pat Robertson’s bedtime reading—and it seems almost obligatory to ask him what Matthew, Mark, and Luke are doing in such company. "I try to publish quality books," he says. "This is probably the best book of all time." I ask him how it fits Grove’s market. "The market for the Bible is everybody," he tells me. And the Pocket Canons? Are they targeted, as most books are, at a specific subset of everybody? Morgan tells me a story about sitting on a airplane next to two nuns. He says he was minding his own business, reading a Pocket Canon. The nuns got interested. They wanted to see. They wanted to know where they could get some Canons of their own.

What Morgan says is true: Everybody is smitten by these books. (He’s no exception. When, at the Frankfurt Book Fair a couple years ago, the editor of Canongate—the British publisher of the Pocket Canons—showed him the first rough mock-ups, he bought American rights on the spot.) Nuns are not Grove’s core audience. Nor are Christian bookstores. But the orders keep coming. It was Morgan who first called the Pocket Canons "the most radical approach to the Bible since Gutenberg." As I’ve said already, a single night at a terminally hip bar convinced me he was right. But only after talking to him about their genesis—and their exodus from the UK to America—can I fully appreciate why.

"The moment I finished reading Charles Johnson’s introduction to Proverbs in manuscript," Morgan confides, "I had someone run to the bookstore to buy me a copy. I’d never read Proverbs before. I always thought it was so old-fashioned." Proverbs was a book of the Bible I’d never taken the time to read either. Certain proverbs are as familiar to the Western ear as classic Madonna. But 31 chapters of advice more sensible than your great aunt’s shoes? Anyone who can find the poetry in that deserves a National Book Award.

Charles Johnson won the National Book Award in 1990, we’re told in an author bio printed opposite the first page of his introduction. We also learn that he’s a "widely published literary critic, philosopher, cartoonist, screenwriter, essayist, and lecturer," and that he’s "one of 12 African-American authors honored in an international series of stamps celebrating great writers of the 20th century." Already Proverbs assumes a certain appeal: Johnson’s name on the cover serves as a sort of testimonial, a thumbs-up from the world of literatureàand cartooningàand philosophy. Charles Johnson is respectable because he appeared on a postage stamp; Proverbs is respectable because a man of postage-stamp stature likes it.

TO CALL THE BIBLE great literature is not merely to speak of its superior sentence structure. Somehow we forget: The Bible is our moral heritage. Its moral authority grows out of its literary merit, and its literary merit grows out of its moral authority. These two sides are as inseparable as the front and back of the same page. Perhaps we don’t need to read the Bible to accept that good is good and bad is bad, but the Bible demands of us more than acceptance.

The real importance of the Pocket Canons lies in the act of cultural subversion that has Lauren chasing after John: Of course the Bible is no better because a postage-stamp supermodel with a National Book Award approves of Proverbs or because Revelation bears a RenT Burri image of a mushroom cloud on its cover. But a deluge of 600,000 clever, jaunty, Pocket Canons with their trumped-up hipper-than-thou posturing may just break the spell cast on the Bible for many by the fundamentalist Right. If so, it won’t just be Genesis and Exodus, Job and Proverbs, Luke and John, we’ll rescue from the land of the dead, but morality itself.

JONATHON KEATS is the author of the novel The Pathology of Lies (Warner Books, 1999). He writes the "Intelligentsia" column in the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review and appears regularly on Salon.com, where a version of this article first appeared.

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