Jon Walker

The King James Bible: a reading sensation

The publication of the King James Bible was not only a watershed moment in the history of publishing; it also had a decisive impact on the history of reading.

In 1611, the Bible was already the exemplary book. It was not only the source of authoritative content; it was the model for how to read other books. The apparatus that makes it possible to divide a written text into its constituent elements and examine them separately – chapter and section headings, footnotes and cross-references, and so on – originates with Biblical scholarship, and the King James Bible made these tools available to a mass audience for the first time. Subsequent theories of interpretation in general and of translation in particular both derive from the tradition of biblical exegesis, as does the concept of literary criticism; but since the rise of the novel in the nineteenth century, the sacred origins of literary culture have been forgotten.

The genre of ‘alternate history’ usually involves reimagining crucial historical events, such as the outcome of the Second World War (‘What if the Germans had won?’). An alternate kind of alternate history might instead involve reimagining crucial cultural events like the publication of the King James Bible. What if it had remained the exemplary book into the nineteenth century? What if we read novels in the same way that the Protestant translators read the scriptures in 1611?

My novel Five Wounds attempts to answer these questions. Five Wounds is therefore laid out like the King James Bible, as if the text comes to us via a caste of priestly interpreters. It is broken into named ‘books’, then broken again within these books into internal numbered chapters and numbered verses, which are displayed in two-columns. Moreover, the names of each of the five protagonists are always rendered in red: that is, as ‘wounds’ on the page, a device adapted from so-called Red Letter editions of the Bible, in which words spoken by Christ are so marked.

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