The Good Book Goes on Tour

TRB

August 06, 1993|By TRB

Will Simon and Schuster never learn? The giant publishing house is already mired in controversy over its publication of ''The Last Brother,'' in which author Joe McGinnis puts thoughts in Ted Kennedy's head without ever having interviewed him. Now, unapologetically, the same company proposes to publish a book whose author strikes an even more flagrant pose of omniscience.

It's ''The Bible.'' Yes, the Bible, King James version. At long last, God is getting the kind of major publisher's ''big book'' treatment formerly reserved for literary figures such as Philip Roth or Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf. A makeshift advance copy (known in the trade as ''bound galleys'') of ''The Bible'' arrived in the New Republic office the other day, with S&S's signature yellow cover and the customary warning: ''Uncorrected and Unpublished Proofs. Confidential. Do Not Quote for Publication Until Verified with Finished Book.'' (Or what? You'll be turned into a pillar of salt?)

However, it does not violate the author's confidentiality -- in case He is still doing some last-minute polishing and searching for le mot juste -- to reveal that He takes McGinnis-like liberties in reporting events, quotations and thought processes; inserts NTC Himself into the narrative in a style worthy of Hunter Thompson; and scatters sex scenes with the calculation of Jackie Collins.

''The Bible'' came with a letter from S&S Editorial Director Alice Mayhew, addressed to one of my colleagues, saying, ''A few words from you would be helpful in getting more people than ever to do what we've all meant to do and, frankly, what we all need to do -- namely, to read the Bible. We would be grateful if you could offer us a quote.''

How flattering, frankly. The word of God, it seems, needs a few words from a journalist to put it over the top. (''In the beginning were a few words,'' as the Good Book puts it.)

And what a terrific opportunity. The solicitation of advance words of praise -- known as a ''blurb'' -- for use in promoting a book is one of the cherished rituals of publishing, and the source of much petty corruption of the I'll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine variety. This, though, is something special. After all, what could be better than having God owe you a favor?

But supplying a suitable blurb for the Bible poses a unique challenge. The old standbys -- ''Essential reading,'' or ''If you read only one book this year, make it this one,'' or ''His best yet'' -- seem inadequate somehow. ''The greatest story ever told'' is a bit obvious. The S&S edition's own introduction actually describes the Bible as, ''so good that I could not put it down'' -- as well as ''compelling stuff'' and ''the book to which all who wonder, who question, who seek first turn.'' So those cliches are used up.

The conventional superlatives of book hype take on uncomfortable double meanings in this context. ''Awesome''? ''Powerful''? ''A revelation''? ''Hallelujah''? ''A literary miracle''? ''Absolutely divine''? And the ordinary comparisons fall a bit flat. ''If you liked 'The Bridges of Madison County,' you'll love 'The Bible' ''? ''Makes Rush Limbaugh look like Beatrix Potter''? ''Don't take John Grisham to the beach this summer -- take God''? My best suggestion was, ''Belongs in every hotel room in America.'' Maybe you can do better.

I would love to know how God happened to sign with Simon and Schuster. Was there an auction? How big was the advance? We do know from the Bible itself that this author is a tough bargainer. Once before, when He felt one of His manuscripts was underappreciated, His literary agent staged quite a scene. To quote, without permission, from the uncorrected galleys:

''Moses' anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of hihands, and broke them beneath the mount. And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strewed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it.'' Thus cowed (so to speak), they renegotiated the contract.

Meanwhile, I can hardly wait for the book tour. It will start, naturally, with an appearance on ''Larry King Live,'' on some night when Ross Perot is not available. (LK: ''So what's it like, really, to be God?'' G: ''You should know, Larry. No, seriously, Larry, it's great, really great, and I just hope I can give something back to the community.'')

He'll take phone calls, of course. (LK: ''Davenport, Iowa -- Hello.'' Caller: ''Yes, Larry, your show is great and I'd just like to ask your guest to explain this flood, because. . . .'' LK: ''Whoops! Gotta cut you off. Thanks for calling. Next call, Sarajevo. . . .'') Then will come book signings in 200 cities -- simultaneously.

But, as Alice Mayhew says, what we all need to do, frankly, is to read the Bible. And I'm going to, frankly. Just as soon as I finish ''The Last Brother.''

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.

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