The Good Book: Genesis

Grayling’s takes on Genesis retells the story in a simplified form, spelling out at some length how the universe, the world and the life that lives in them came to be. But it does so with little detail, and with a chronology so twisted as to make the Bible’s two creation stories in its Genesis comparitively straightforward. At least in the Bible, after chapter 3, things happen chronologically. Not so in the Good Book’s take on Genesis.

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The Good Book: Wisdom

As I predicted, there is pomposity a-plenty in The Good Book. But it’s hard to imagine anything much more pompous than a book entitled Wisdom.

To be fair, there is much in the 22 chapters of the book that I feel is wise, but its wisdom is diminished rather than enhanced by collecting it thusly. Read together, the assorted pieces of wisdom are made to sound like mere platitudes by sheer repetition – a phenomenon not at all helped by the fact that much of the book is composed of mere platitudes.

Moreover, the book contradicts itself in several places. It might be argued that wisdom can often seem paradoxical at best, and there’s truth in that, but it doesn’t make a pair of conflicting statements align. It’s possible, I suppose, that Grayling was seeking a koan-like effect in doing so, but the sheer literalism and didacticism of the text makes me doubt this.

That said, his device of ending each chapter with the question “How long will you delay to be wise?” is effective, and the moreso for its repetition. It’s just that it inspires me to ask Grayling how long he will delay to be humble.

The Good Book: Parables, chapter 1

Because each chapter of this book is a separate parable (well, sort of – we’ll get to that), I’ve decided to treat each chapter as a separate post here, the better to tease out the meaning of the parables.

That is, if I can stand it. There’s a good chance that even my Bookmadness will be insufficient to carry me all the way through this book (and so far, I’m only about 10% of the way through it). The reason for this, as mentioned in previous chapters, is Grayling’s increasingly insufferable smugness and self-satisfaction.

The first chapter of Parables details a conversation between Plousios (a king) and Penicros (a beggar). Structurally, it more resembles a Socratic dialogue than a parable: Plousios asks questions and Penicros answers them, and Plousios marvels at thw wisdon Penicros (whose name is, presumably by coincidence, an anagram of ‘Orc Penis’ – which he resembles in subtlety at least). At very least, we can be certain that whatever Grayling’s points of agreement with Catholic dogma might be, that pride is a sin is not one of them – Penicros is so wise that he apparantly doesn’t realise that boasting about one’s wisdom is unwise. (“Guess our minds must be too highly trained, Vroomfondel.”)

The fact that Penicros is a painfully obvious author mouthpiece aside, his ‘wisdom’ is dubious at best. Among other things, he says that is fine to lie to one’s spouse (if there is a Mrs Grayling, I hope she’s read that bit). He also paraphrases McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” badly – so badly, in fact, that it’s possible that my identification of the paraphrase is faulty. But I can find no other meaning that could apply to that section.

Like I said, cats and kittens, I’m not sure I can finish this book. But I hope I’ve at least made it clear to you why not.

The Good Book: Parables, chapters 2 – 18

I’ve lumped these several chapters in together because they tell a continuing story, that of the interactions of a ‘wise man’ named Charicles with a never-named stranger who is also, apparently, ‘wise.’

It consists of a circular story that turns out in the end to have all been a dream, and contains numerous tales within its tale, and at least one tale within a tale within a tale. It reads like an academics attempt to replicated Borges, in which the structure is recreated but the soul is missing.

Wisdom, according to these chapters, looks a hell of a lot like speaking in metaphors instead of saying what you mean, or of deciphering metaphors. About the only concrete wisdom that I can derive from this confused exercise in missing the point of metafiction is as follows:

  • Foxes and serpents are not to be trusted
  • Wine may or may not be a good thing
  • There’s no place like home

In fact, the only actual wisdom I can derive from this mess is that there is no one better at lying to any person than they themself – wisdom which apparently Grayling never considered when he was composing this work, or it might possibly possess intentional merit.

The Good Book: Parables, chapters 19 – 21

These three chapters belong together, as they each concern a tale of the King of the City of Stones. In each of them, someone abuses – or attempts to abuse – the generosity of the king. And in two of the, the king is shown to be such a poor judge of character that we can only assume that he inherited his reign – although to be fair, he is quick to set right the results when he learns the truth.

Of all the parables seen thus far, these are the easiest to understand and the most simply expressed. And yet, they all make much the same point: that generosity and abuse of generosity each return a just reward.

It’s only their repetitive placement and moralising that makes these three annoying. Three chapters in a row that say exactly the same thing? That close an aping of the Bible we could do without.

The Good Book: Parables, chapter 22

A simnple parable this one, a brief – though not brief enough – lesson on the subject of putting down a book and getting some exercise once in a while.

This is good advice, but given the eminently put-down-able nature of this book in particular, it is perhaps a poor move tactically on Grayling’s part to place it so early in what promises to be a long and wearying slog of a read.

The Good Book: Parables, chapter 23

Another brief homily, this one on the subject of what a good thing literacy is. Which is ever so slightly redundant in a book such as this, which, let’s face it, no one (not even me) would pick up for casual reading.

This is the last chapter of the Book of Parables, for which I personally am thankful. Coming up next: the Book of Concord, which promises to be, well, most likely more of the same.

The Good Book: Concord

This book, at least, is accurately named. There are two speakers engaged in a dialogue throughout the course of this book, and they spend every word of it agreeing with each other about how well each of them understands friendship, which is the subject of the book.

To be fair, most of what is said regarding friendship in the course of Concord is nothing much that one could disagree with – and other than the way it is phrased (we use commas and full stops for a reason, Grayling), there’s not much in it you wouldn’t find in a self help book on the topic.

What sets it aside is Grayling’s insistence on staging it as a faux-Socratic dialogue. To my mind, this actually works against the purpose of the book, as it is a remarkably dry prose style (we read the ancients for their wits, not their witticisms) which is further complicated by Grayling’s remarkably verbose and circuitous authorial voice. And because it is two friends discussing how awesome friendship is, it can’t help but sound a little self-congratulatory, although unlike the other books so far, it at least has an excuse to sound so.

Next up, Lamentations. So that should be fun.

The Good Book: Lamentations

Lamentations would more accurately be called the Book of Adolescent Self-Pity. It reads like a second-rate – or third-rate, more likely – version of Ecclesiastes. While it does return to the theme of the previous book in suggesting friendship as a consolation to the sorrows that cause lamentations, it doesn’t stand on its own very well. The next book is entitled Consolations, so maybe it will combine to make something decent…

…but I doubt it.

The Good Book: Consolations

In my look at it, I said that this book;s immediate predecessor should have been titled Adolescent Self-Pity rather than Lamentations (although, to be fair, such a pretentious title really is quite adolescent), and wondered if this book, Consolations, would prove to be a companion piece to it.

It is, but unfortunately it’s a companion in the sense that it should have been titled Adult Platitudes. There is some meat on these bones – some statements here that (expressed more plainly at least) resonate with my own life experiences – but to pursue the meat metaphor (meataphor?), it’s a dry and bloodless kind of meat. (Some form of jerky, perhaps, which would be apt, at least).

The Good Book: Sages

Grayling’s process in creating this book (and it’s notable that the front cover describes it as being “made” rather than written) was – and I quote – “made in just the same way as the Judaeo-Christian Bible was made: by redaction, editing, paraphrasing, interpolation, arrangement and rewriting of texts from the last three thousand years of the great secular traditions.” Because it’s not plagiarism if its out of copyright, right?

Leaving aside what a great idea that wasn’t, the end results of this process are nowhere more evident than in the Book of Sages. The Sages are not named anywhere in the book, which chooses to place all the distilled wisdom of the ages in the mouth of someone identified only as “the master”. So the words of, say Marcus Aurelius and Leo Tze are placed in the same mouth, and don’t always work well together. Of course, Grayling’s terrifying tone deafness to how godawful his prose is doesn’t make things go any smoother. As always, the good ideas are lost in a mess of poorly composed sentences.

The Good Book: Songs

A long book, this time. Alas, length does not translate to quality.

This one clearly riffs of the Song of Solomon from the Bible, among other sources. Those other sources are hard to identify, but it does seem like the works of James Taylor were among them. Along with several less talented lyricists. And much like the Song of Solomon, its inclusion makes little sense thematically or artistically.

I’m beginning to wonder if Grayling’s actual purpose in writing this wasn’t to point out how awful the Bible is as a piee of writing and a source of wisdom, simply by creating a secular version that replicates the vast majority of the same flaws.