While in Cambridge a couple of weeks ago, I took the opportunity to visit the exhibition I mentioned in this month’s recommendations: ‘Great and Manifold Blessings: The Making of the King James Bible’. Just before going, I happened upon Diarmaid MacCulloch’s review piece, ‘How good is it?’ in the London Review of Books (3 February 2011). In it, MacCulloch states, ‘The story of the KJB and its influence has often been told, and we will hear it repeated to distraction in this quartercentenary year. If one wonders whether it’s worth telling again, well, like the KJB itself, it sells, and good luck to publishers who turn an honest penny by it’. If ever you’ve booked yourself into a hotel and had a rummage through the bedside table drawers, you’ve probably found yourself a KJB. I have a copy or two of the KJB myself, as I imagine lots of Irish households do, and though its language can be excessively formal, flowery, and archaic, especially in an atmosphere in which there is an ever-increasing number of translations that target twenty-first century readers with twenty-first century language (here I’m thinking specifically of The Message), the KJB remains a bestseller today, four hundred years after it was first produced.
Part of the KJB’s continued attraction is the transformation it effected in seventeenth-century English social, religious, and cultural life as well as the ongoing effect it arguably still has on many facets of twenty-first century life. In an article published in The Guardian last November, Robert McCrum calls the KJB ‘a number one bestseller of unprecedented literary significance’ that has fundamentally ‘shaped our imaginative landscape’. With stronger language still, McCrum claims, ‘As well as selling an estimated 1bn copies since 1611, the KJB went straight into our literary bloodstream like a lifesaving drug’. He further notes that many well-used words – ‘scapegoat’ and ‘long-suffering’, for instance – as well as favourite idiomatic sayings – ‘fighting the good fight’, for example, or ‘see the writing on the wall’ – come directly from the KJB. Read more