An insult to language

I haven’t read Susan Jacoby’s “Spirited Atheist” column in a month or two, but today I found an absolutely wonderful article on A.C. Grayling’s The Good Book: A Humanist/Secular Bible. Suffice to say the first time I read any of Grayling’s souped-up anthology I thought it sounded awful, like one of the umpteen translations of Genesis that try too hard at saying the same well-worn phrases in novel ways. But how many ways can you find to write, “In the beginning…?” They all just end up sounding vaguely “biblical” no matter how you rearrange the words (which is likely the point.) Here’s Jacoby:

Let me quote from the first chapter of the first “book” (again, modeled after the format of a standard bible), called—what else?—Genesis.“In the garden stands a tree. In springtime it bears flowers; in the autumn, fruit. The fruit is knowledge, teaching the good gardener how to understand the world…When Newton sat in his garden, and saw what no one had ever seen before: that an apple draws the earth to itself, and the earth the apple….”

You can’t satirize this stuff. Forget the vapidity of the language. It’s not even factually accurate, which, at a minimum, a secular bible ought to be. Another chapter (9:18) has arteries carrying “nascent blood,” while “lengthening veins return the crimson flood.” Wrong again. Arteries carry bright red blood, because it is fully oxygenated, away from the heart, while the returning blood in veins is much darker because it is generally deoxygenated.

Apart from my initial sense of enthusiasm on hearing about Grayling’s Good Book, I’ve had some reservations about it (I generally enjoy Grayling’s work). I’m not sure how homogenizing 3000 years of wisdom into an authorless mish-mash of slightly “elevated” (read: biblical) language serves any purpose – especially if one’s purpose is to offer an alternative to the Bible. One thing I love about literature is knowing who wrote what, when. I think that really does matter in the end. And unless the intent is satire, I don’t think many atheists/secularists will be drawn to a book based chapter-and-verse on another book we’ve read – and often trashed – the Bible.

Jacoby sums up:

There has already been a good deal written, particularly in England, about whether Grayling’s bible insults religion. This is utterly beside the point, since the book is an insult to language, to authors who deserve credit for their words, to translators who deserve credit for translating those words, and, above all, to the intelligence of secular readers. We don’t have one Good Book. We have good books, thousands of years of them, and the real Euripides, Shakespeare, Spinoza and Darwin are all available to provide a genuine humanistic education.

Exactly. Who the hell needs a sterilized version of Shakespeare, anyway?