Well the long awaited double volume on Paul and the Faithfulness of God by N T Wright has finally thumped on to my desk. I've read the Preface which itself is a good few pages. And I've handled and browsed, and not even tried to read any of the main text yet, and I'm not happy.
I am a bibliophile. That means I love books - yes I love and have spent years of real time reading; yes, like most readers I realise that what we read and how and why and when shapes the people we are becoming; yes, I never feel more comfortably set up than sitting in a study, or at a favourite reading place, with a good book, and whatever else helps to make time fruitfully pleasant and pleasantly fruitful.
But by a good book I also mean a well conceived, durably produced and aesthetically satisfying book. And this latest monstrous set fails on these counts.
Two volumes, one of 600 pages and the other around 1050 pages - in paperback. Yes they can be bought hardback (at £125) but in these days of paperback monographs the size of monoliths, is any publisher going to concede that there is an optimum, not to say maximum size a book can reasonably be and still have a hope of surviving a first reading and frequent revisiting without splitting into multi-volumes from use.
I've tried with Wright's gargantuan second volume to sit it on the desk open at the place. You have to be 300 pages into it before it lies on the desk. About 400 pages before the end the book flaps closed unless you press on it. Now SPCK are not the only publisher with a problem when a mega book is published. I guess the first paperback one volume edition of Lord of the Rings was just as unwieldy, which didn't stop people lugging it around and reading it on buses, in the Uni refectory in the 1970's, and lying dog-eared and split in many a bookcase. And anyone who bought Douglas Campbell's The Deliverance of God, another mammoth restatement of Paul's Theology of Justification will be having the same dulling experience of wrestling with a paperback which is two and one half reams of paper thick - yes this one is over 1300 pages in one volume.
Then, this set comes in what is euphemistically described as a slip case. It's a flimsy card slipover which once you take the two volumes out, is too tight to easily slip them back in. Now Raymond Brown's two volume The Death of the Messiah, produced by Yale 20 years ago, is different; it comes in a real slip case and is in two finely produced hardbacks. It comes in paperback with the same slip case. I would happily have paid a few pounds more for this set in a decent slip case, and as three volumes of manageable size.
All of which said, this work on Paul has been years in gestating, growing and finally being published. It isn't an author's call as to the dress and cost of the finished book. And I will enjoy reading Wright (whether every page from start to finish may depend on my longevity). But I still have a wistful, niggly, no indeed a worrying question; how come 20 years ago F F Bruce, a scholar of immense erudition and accomplishment, wrote his magnum opus on Paul. Apostle of the Heart Set Free, and in it summed up a lifetime of scholarship, and did so in under 500 pages. I know times have changed. And yes Wright is engaged in a once in a generation scale opus aimed at rewriting of early Christian origins.
But I remain niggled. The advent of the computer, the plethora of search programmes, research assistants, and online availability of major texts and data-bases, is in danger of encouraging what begins to feel like bloated, over-indulged, over-written and under-edited tomes. They are increasingly counter productive volumes, not unreadable because of the prose but because of the information overload, which discourages thorough reading. I get the feeling such volumes happen because authors no longer have editors who say a book should be of such and such a length, albeit with discretion and tolerance of the importance of the subject, but also with some understanding of the needs of the reader.
I rest my case. And yes, I'm still delighted to have Wright on Paul. Glad too my desk is oak and seriously weight bearing. I will try to perform the right Wright rite ( or should it be the Wright rite right?) as I place the volume beneath my desk lamp and start reading what Wright writes, right? And despite all the above, this is at least for me, one of the great biblical studies events in my lifetime. I will learn much.