Contented Reader

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The Good Book

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The Good Book: A Humanist Bible

A. C. Grayling

Walker & Company

To think about The Good Book, I am really writing about two different things: Did Grayling do this well, and was this a useful thing to do?

What Grayling is trying to do is to create a book that is similar in structure to the Bible- a gathering together of the world’s wisdom, synthesized into a single book, a book that a person could use for guidance in a variety of situations.  Like the authors of the Bible, Grayling copies and paraphrases freely from many sources, without attribution.  The difference between The Good Book and the Bible is that this book focuses on human wisdom and experience, with no gods.

The sources are to a large extent Greek and Roman, with a generous amount of Chinese writing, and lots that I did not recognize but, in the spirit of what Grayling is doing, didn’t try to find.

What he does, he does well.  The result is a book which could be used in the same ways that religious people use the Bible: you could take small passages as proverbs; you could meditate on what is here; you could study it and apply it to your life; you could gather together with others to read and discuss it.  You could base your life on this book, if you wanted to, and probably do pretty well with it.  In fact, I think there’s a good chance that you’d do better basing your life on this book than on the Bible, since Grayling thoughtfully does not include as many stories encouraging you to slaughter, rape, and ostracize as the authors of the Bible do.

Was it a useful thing to do?  Here I’m less sure.  Not many humanists are looking for a single book to guide their life, as Christians do with the Bible.  The philosophy and history and poetry in this book is already widely available in its other sources, which are already widely read by the sorts of people who are likely to read this book.  And since Grayling leaves his sources unattributed, I’m not able to follow the wisdom in this book back and read the original works it comes from.

I enjoyed reading this book, and I benefitted from reading it.  It’s entirely likely that I’ll read it again.  I don’t regret spending $35 to buy it new in hardcover.  (The day I bought it, I was at a book reading by John Scalzi.  He did offer to sign it for me, but I opted to have him sign one of his own books instead.)  But I can’t picture myself really using it as a ‘bible,’ even though it’s so well suited for the purpose.  Rather, it just makes me want to put it on the shelf and go read Epictetus and Plutarch again.  I hate to say it, because I did like it, but I think the book is a novelty.


Written by Contented Reader

August 28, 2011 at 9:49 am

Posted in Reviews


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