Book: God’s Secretaries

If you’re looking for a history of the KJV, you are likely to be disappointed by this book. There is a history, and considering the very sparse information on the topic, it’s a pretty good one, but it is concealed in the incredibly wordy prose of this ponderous document. Considering my own propensity for long words and complex sentences, I would suggest that I be taken seriously when I call someone else’s prose “ponderous.” Nicolson really likes the rich language of the KJV. He seems also to like much of the culture of Jacobean England, though he is capable of criticizing it.

There is a great deal here on culture and the feel of the times. There is very little on Bible translation and its characteristics. I would call it more of a story than a history, but then it is a story that moves so slowly.

Having said all of this about style, there is one characteristic that truly annoys me. Nicolson apparently belongs to that group of people who has decided that a particular literary style is better than any other, and who criticize anything else as inadequate. If one comprehends the Jacobean prose, and if one appreciates that sort of thing, then it will have the effects Nicolson credits it with. But that determination is subjective. I personally find the Revised English Bible a much better read. I like its sound better when read aloud, and I believe it is both more comprehensible and more faithful to the literary values of the source texts it purports to translate.

Nicolson holds that sometimes the KJV is more majestic than the source. If one assumes that majesty is the proper quality of all prose, then perhaps that’s a good thing. As a reader of the source texts in their original languages, I don’t feel the same way. And “feel” is the appropriate term. There are some objective values in literary quality–good proofreading, for example. But much of literary quality is a matter of taste.

I recall one of my professors who was a great fan of Dostoevsky. He also thought much of the science fiction I read was of poor quality and low literary value. Some of it was, some of it wasn’t. But under no circumstances would I recommend to anyone to read Dostoevsky at any time. I know that there are those literary folks who will regard my tastes as pedestrian and popular. They’re welcome to that opinion. I like what I like.

What I dislike is the notion that those who like something different than I do are somehow objectively on a higher literary level. The KJV uses a language that was already in the past when it was translated. I do believe it is of high literary quality, though I wouldn’t want all that many works written in that style. (I like but do not love Shakespeare.) On page 234, Nicolson quotes T. S. Eliot of the NEB, saying that it “astonishes in its combination of the vulgar, the trivial and the pedantic.” I like T. S. Eliot, but I disagree with him here.

If you choose to read this book, be prepared to cull the valuable material from the midst of the trivial and pedantic load of superfluous verbal baggage.

My numerical rating: 2.

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