The Book of Books: the Radical Impact of the King James Bible (1611-2011)

As a broadcaster, Melvyn Bragg has discussed more topics with more specialists and more energetically than most of us could ever hope to do. The 400th anniversary of the King James Bible provides him with the perfect opportunity to write something which reflects that breadth of encounter.

The Book of Books has three parts. The first takes us "from Hampton Court to New England". It's a broadly chronological account, putting the KJB in historical context and paying proper attention to earlier translations, with Tyndale (published in 1526) justly recognised as pre-eminent. The book explains how the KJB was commissioned, planned and executed. Then the camera angle widens and we are taken on the first of the KJB's many journeys: across the Atlantic on the Mayflower; to the English civil war, where it provided ammunition for both sides; to the Restoration era in Britain; and to the Great Awakening in America.

In part two, "The Impact on Culture", the journey extends to science, language, literature and political thought. The writer shows how the KJB was hugely influential among those who formed the Royal Society. Its language forms an important strand in present-day idiom. It can be seen as great literature in its own right, and has hugely influenced British and American writers. Bragg gives us a whistle-stop tour from Shakespeare to Toni Morrison, with way stations including Milton, Bunyan, Defoe, Blake, Melville, Faulkner, Eliot and Golding. "After all the pounding it has taken", Bragg writes, this Bible "is still a source for such great imaginative writers today".

The writer shows how the KJB survived attacks by philosophers such as David Hume and Thomas Hobbes during the Enlightenment. This leads him to make a strong case for how it will survive the so-called New Enlightenment of Richard Dawkins and others. Bragg does a grand demolition job of Dawkins's limited vision - his failure to recognise the positive dimension to belief and to appreciate the critical importance of the historical backdrop. He ends this section of the book with an account of the KJB's influence on the actions of individuals, presenting Mary Wollstonecraft and William Wilberforce as cases in point.

Part three is "The Impact on Society". Here the KJB's journeys take us first into slavery, and then the American civil war and its political consequences. A global perspective emerges. The Book is seen as "the prime educating force in the English-speaking world", and Protestant missionaries as especially important in this process. The text has played an important role in developing social attitudes to sex and the place of women, and in the rise of socialism. Above all, it helped form our modern notion of democracy. This, Bragg argues, could be the KJB's "greatest achievement" of all.

The book's strengths are its judicious selectivity and its breadth, yet both carry risks.

All readers will want to cite other examples: I would add the Virgin Mary to his discussion of biblical women, and one could easily double the length of the chapter on global spread by showing how the KJB has influenced literature across the Commonwealth. Nor do I doubt that specialists will dispute specific points. The linguist in me worries when I read that there are "literally thousands" of present-day idiomatic expressions in the KJB (my estimate is roughly 250) - but I'm happy to turn a blind eye to the occasional linguistic infelicity in the interests of seeing the wider picture.

Which is what we get. Bragg's strengths as a novelist yield an account that is personal and imaginative, full of excitement and energy. He is inclusive, too, addressing believers and nonbelievers alike. The chapters are short and usually end with a cliffhanger. Indeed, I have never read an account of the Bible quite so compelling.The key lies in the subtitle: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible. At the end of his prologue, Bragg says that whoever we are in the English-speaking world, and regardless of whether we have religious convictions or not, he hopes to persuade us that this version of the Bible "has driven the making of that world over the last 400 years, often in most unexpected ways". I am persuaded. l

The Book of Books: the Radical Impact of the King James Bible (1611-2011)
Melvyn Bragg
Hodder & Stoughton, 384pp, £20

David Crystal is the author of "Begat: the King James Bible and the English Language" (Oxford University Press, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 04 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who are the English?