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Small Print

The Scotsman, September 13, 1999
By: Phil Miller


They have been the subject of controversy and even accused of blasphemy, but Canongate's set of "mini-bibles" look set to continue their remarkable success when the second wave of books is released in November.

First published last year, the Pocket Canons -- excerpts from the King James Bible given enlightening and thought-provoking prologues by contemporary figures -- have sold more than 900,000 copies.

For Canongate, the small publishing house based in Edinburgh and run by Jamie Byng, the books have proved to be a boon financially, and significantly raised its profile within the publishing world.

With their sepia-tinted, artful covers and low price, the Pocket Canons have become familiar birthday and Christmas presents and inspired much debate over the relevance of the Bible in modern society.

Now the "second coming" of the books is set to be released, featuring introductions from a number of leading writers and one literate rock star -- Bono, the lead singer with U2.

Bono, real name Paul Hewson, has written the introduction to Psalms, while the leading Scottish writer Alasdair Gray has written one for the books of Jonah, Micah and Nahum. Other books include Ruth and Esther, introduced by Joanna Trollope, Isaiah by Peter Ackroyd, Romans by Ruth Rendell, Acts of the Apostles by P.D. James, Hebrews by Karen Armstrong, Samuel by Meir Shalev and Wisdom by Piers Paul Read.

In his introduction, Bono writes how he was a fan of the biblical figure of David as a child, who felt as familiar as a pop star to him when young.

He writes about the psalms as if they were the first blues songs, expressing feelings of abandonment and displacement, and states that David was the "Elvis of the Bible."

Bono writes about his earliest contact with the Bible's psalms, and how they contrasted with his experiences in the Troubles of Ireland. He writes: "I began to see religion as a perversion of faith;" the faith, he writes, that was inspired by the "blues" of the psalms.

Indeed, Bono's familiarity with the book of Psalms led to U2 performing a song called 40 for many years, based on Psalm 40, with its refrain of "how long?"

Alasdair Gray, in his introduction to Jonah, writes of how the God of the Old Testament has been ignored in modern times.

"Jesus learned from Jonah, Micah and Nahum what governments of Britain and the USA refuse to learn from Jesus," he writes.

Ruth Rendell's prologue to Romans emphasises the "genius" of St Paul. "(Romans) is a blueprint for Christianity.

"Believers and non-believers alike cannot help but be stricken with awe by its temerity and Paul's genius," she writes.

Mr. Byng is hoping the second series of books will replicate the success of the first.

They included a description of God as a "mad, bloodthirsty and capricious despot" by the novelist Louis de Bernieres, and Will Self asserted that the Book of Revelations was a "sick text" and "the stuff of modern psychotic nightmare."

They raised such controversy that a Christian lawyer from England, Tony Bennett, threatened to take Canongate to court on a charge of blasphemous libel, and claimed the books were deeply upsetting to believers.

However, the overwhelming success of the books signalled that Mr. Bennett's views were not held by many.

Last night, Mr. Byng was happy to comment on this year's series, which has caused a flurry of activity among the media attempting to land the rights to the full texts.

"I thought Bono's piece was excellent, indeed they are all good," he said. "I don't think anyone's made the link between the blues and the psalms before. A mutual friend introduced me to Bono and we spent some time on a plane and he had so many interesting ideas about Psalms that I asked him to write the introduction.

"The last set of books had an excellent piece by the singer Nick Cave and sometimes you do find it is the non-writers that turn out the best."

Mr. Byng said that the success of the Pocket Canons showed that ideas were still important in a publishing industry that sometimes appears to be dominated by money and large advances for "big name" authors.

* The new Pocket Canons are released on 1 November.

© 1999 Scotsman. All rights reserved.

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