Author John Bunyan was born in Bedford, England, in 1628 to an illiterate tinker. As a wandering tradesman, Bunyan’s father had little money and barely a place to call home. Because of this, Bunyan often compared his meandering life to a pilgrim’s journey, heavy pack on back.
Bunyan was largely self-educated, his biggest influence being the English gospels. His most famous portrait shows him with a book in one arm–the Geneva Bible. This exact volume is what Christian carries with him in Bunyan’s most famous novel, The Pilgrim’s Progress, as he runs from his family, fingers in his ears, shouting, “Life, life, eternal life!”
Child support wasn’t exactly a thing yet.
For Bunyan, the lectern was his classroom, and the preachers his teachers. Religion was not a way of life, but a war; the pilgrim’s staff not a walking aid, but a cudgel to thwart heretics. There wasn’t much turning of the other cheek, it seems. Bunyan was a Christian soldier, constantly on the march. Quite literally. He enlisted with Cromwell’s ‘Roundhead’ parliamentary army before he was sixteen.
At 22 he married for the first time and had four children. His wife died just eight years later, and he remarried within a year. He became a militant Baptist preacher who abhorred Quakers and hated Royalists. By 1660 King Charles returned to the throne (from France) and Bunyan was arrested for preaching without a license and devilishly and fiendishly refusing to attend goodly and lawful church services.
He would spend the next twelve years of his life in jail as a prisoner of conscience. There, suffering for his beliefs, he wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress (as well as some other books, poems, and pamphlets).
Unlike Solzhenitsyn, who wrote and recalled his Gulag Archipelago in Stalin’s prison camps from memory, Bunyan was not just given writing materials, but also printers with which to distribute his works. His imprisonment was more akin to house arrest, it would seem. More Virginia Woolf than Marcel Proust.
The Pilgrim’s Progress is the spiritual journey of a man named Christian who is guided by a man named Evangelist. Urged to leave the City of Destruction, Christian seeks to find salvation in the Celestial City, Mount Zion. Along the way he encounters doubters (Worldly Wiseman), monsters (Apollyon), fellow pilgrims (Faithful and Talkative) and more. It’s all very allegorical and the head of the nail Bunyan was hitting couldn’t have been larger. Christian’s family, who refused to accompany him in Part I, become the focus of Part II, in which they repent for their sinful doubt and proceed on their own insanely metaphorical journey towards salvation.
In modern times this book would have been laughed out of every publisher in North America, save for a few evangelicals on the farrrr right. Ted Haggard might even call this melodramatic. But as a piece of history Bunyan’s novel is quite interesting, and the piece takes on an incredible weight once you understand how significant it actually is.
The Pilgrim’s Progress is the all-time fiction bestseller. More than Harry Potter. More than The Lord of the Rings. There have been more editions than anyone has been able to count. It’s possibly the first English novel ever written. Since it’s publication in 1678 the book has never been out of print. To this day Amazon still sells an alarming number of copies. It’s the most-read book in the English world, after the Bible.
Whether Bunyan was a crackpot or not, and whether his Christian allegory is worthwhile or not in 2015, one thing is certain: his prose is magnificent. It is incredibly clear and evocative for a nearly 350-year-old novel. I borderline hated it, but it was a pleasure to read. That’s something.
After being caught in a rainstorm, Bunyan contracted a chill. He insisted on preaching, and so caught the fever that would first claim his voice, and then his life. If nothing else, he died doing what he loved.
weirdo wunderkind Jaden Smith is apparently writing a philosophy book. He’s 17. [Mashable]
Need book recommendations this holiday season? The Penguin Hotline is back, and their expert staffers will do their best to find the perfect book for you. [Penguin]
If you’d rather get your book recommendations without sending in a form to Penguin, NPR has an awesome guide that’s super easy to use, on desktop and mobile. [NPR]
Bill Gates lists the best books he’s read this year. Ever notice that billionaires don’t read fiction? [MarketWatch]
Are you in a book club? Here’s a list of Shakespeare-themed cocktails. [Mashable]
This one isn’t book related. It’s just hilarious. A man has figured out how much it would cost to build an actual Death Star. The price is outrageous. [Gizmodo]
Were you unsatisfied with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic? Amy Tan is writing a nonfiction book about creativity. [Bustle]
15 Worthwhile Books You Might Have Missed in 2015. [Flavorwire]
A Book I Can’t Wait to Read
“A compelling, thought-provoking story about female adolescence, family love, faith and independence, with a well-drawn girl at the heart of it.” — The Seattle Times
The Girl Who Slept With God is Val Brelinksi’s debut novel. Set in Arco, Idaho, in 1970, it’s the story of three sisters: young Frances, gregarious and strong-willed Jory, and moral-minded Grace. Their father, Oren, is a science professor at a local university and a pillar of the community. The seemingly perfect family is threatened by their mother’s depression and Grace’s religious fervor. When Grace returns from a missionary trip to Mexico and discovers she’s pregnant with—she believes—the child of God, their whole world is turned upside down.
Distraught, Oren sends Jory and Grace to an isolated home at the edge of the town. There, they prepare for the much-awaited arrival of the baby while building a makeshift family as kindly neighbor Mrs. Kleinfelter and Grip, a good-hearted ice cream man with a dubious past, act as eccentric mentors.
When asked how her real life evangelical parents would have reacted to the novel, author Val Brelinksi said, “My mother and father both died while I was finishing the novel, so neither one had a chance to read it. In many ways I think this was probably for the best. My parents were always somewhat mystified by my desire to write, and especially by my desire to write about our religion and our own family’s peculiarities. My parents believed in keeping things private, an ideal I have now violated rather thoroughly. They did read a couple of my published short stories and wondered aloud why I had to include so many personal details and why the stories had to be so ‘dark.’ I think they would have been far happier if I had stayed in Idaho and remained a high school English teacher. And they fervently wished I had kept going to church.”