Thursday, August 9, 2012

Forthcoming Publication: The Book of Jonah

I am currently working on a small edition of The Book of Jonah, hand-set in my typeface Nicolas and printed on a special making of Twinrocker Handmade Paper. The story of Jonah is one to which I have returned repeatedly, though I had no specific plans to print it until I acquired a large font of Nicolas from the Dale Guild Type Foundry last year. Inspired by the twelfth century enamel lettering of Nicolas of Verdun, the letterforms in Nicolas are designed to embody a physical content as well as convey a literary one—they are spiky, voluptuous letters that would be ill-suited for most commercial book work. Cast at a large size of 24pt, the typeface would typically be considered a titling face but my intention when designing it was that it would be used for continuous text. After living with the font for a few months I began experimenting with various settings and page proportions. It quickly became apparent that Jonah was the right text for the alphabet.

The pages of the book are oblong, measuring eleven inches wide by ten inches tall, and are composed with a nod to early Biblical manuscripts. The type forms are inked in migrating shades of blue ink, conceived as a visual descent into and eventual reprieve from darkness over the course of the book. Eighty copies will be printed in advance of October, 2012.

Opening spread of The Book of Jonah.

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To sum up the story: the word of God comes to Jonah and tells him to travel from an undisclosed location to the city of Nineveh and cry against its wickedness. Instead, Jonah flees to Joppa and boards a boat for Tarshish. God sends down a mighty tempest striking fear into all but Jonah, who is sleeping down below. The sailors draw lots to discover the cause of the turmoil and the lot falls upon Jonah who, after telling his story to the sailors, suggests that he be tossed overboard so that the sea will be calm. Rather than take Jonah's life, the sailors try unsuccessfully to row to shore, after which they beseech God to neither kill them nor make them kill Jonah. God remains implacable. The sailors pitch Jonah over, the sea becomes calm, the sailors make sacrifices and vows.

Meanwhile, below, God has prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah up. While in the belly of the fish, Jonah offers a prayer as if he had already been released from the fish, pledging to hold true to his vows. After three days and three nights, God has the fish vomit Jonah onto shore.

Once again the word of God comes to Jonah, commanding him to go to Nineveh and preach against it, which he does in a remarkably terse manner: "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown." Message received, all the inhabitants, king and peasant alike (and their livestock), cover themselves in sackcloth, refrain from food and drink, and cry to God, promising to turn from evil and violence. Seeing their sincerity, God repents of the evil he has said he would do to them and spares Nineveh his wrath.

Contrary to expectations, Jonah is beside himself with anger, saying that he fled to Tarshish initially because he knew that God was gracious and merciful and would repent his evil pledge. In a peculiar narrative leap, Jonah then beseeches God to take his life from him. God refuses and Jonah sets up a "booth" outside the city walls so that he might see what will become of Nineveh. God causes a gourd tree to grow to provide Jonah with shade, only to set a worm to destroy it the following night. He then causes a blistering sun and hot wind to beat upon Jonah until he faints with heat and prays for death. To this prayer, God responds that if Jonah should pity the gourd ought not the Lord pity the people of Nineveh and their cattle? Here the book ends.

Although the bit about the belly of the fish gets all the press, the central narrative conflict of The Book of Jonah concerns Jonah's reaction to the call to prophecy. It is not a simple reaction. First he flees from God's sight and displays no signs of regret for having disobeyed Him, easily sleeping while the tempest roils around him. (Later we learn that Jonah's equipoise may have derived from his belief that God would not commit "the evil" against Nineveh anyway, so Jonah's services as prophet were unnecessary.) When called the second time, Jonah enacts God's commandment with a minimum of effort and then cries angrily that his evil prophecy was not fulfilled (if that is, in fact, why he is angry). First you have me swallowed by a fish, then you make me trudge all the way out here to tell these people that you are going to destroy them, and then you don't destroy them! Just kill me now!

Despite these convoluted scenarios it is hard to believe that The Book of Jonah is really about Nineveh at all. Or more precisely, if the purpose of the prophecy is to instruct Nineveh, there is no story to tell—one little peep from Jonah and the whole city mends its ways. The story is all action with little or no character development, two odd prophetic tales tenuously balanced on the fulcrum of Jonah's transformative experience in the belly of the fish. The real narrative cargo of The Book of Jonah is how Jonah learns (or can learn) from his own prophecy.

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As with all Biblical books, each careful reader of The Book of Jonah has their own interpretation or point of access. When I read the text, I interpret it as a parable for the transformation from adolescence to adulthood. The stage for this reading is set in the first chapter when the lot falls upon Jonah and the sailors interrogate him thus: Tell us, we pray thee, for whose cause this evil is upon us; What is thine occupation? and whence comest thou? what is thy country? and of what people art thou? These formative existential questions set a tone for the succeeding narrative: who are you? what do you believe in? Each character in the story, including God, is called upon to answer these questions through their actions. Throughout the text, Jonah vacillates between cluelessness and insight, blithely ignoring God's will one moment, displaying a near-omnipotent understanding of God's limitations the next. What better model of an adolescent is there than one whose lack of worldly understanding is shot through with occasional flashes of native wisdom? Jonah's reactions to God's commandments, in all their petulance and pluck, are the reactions of a child, and the lessons he is learning are necessary for his transition to adulthood. Chief among these lessons is empathy. Jonah's early willingness to sacrifice his life for those of the other sailors, the sailors' attempts to row to shore rather than kill Jonah, Jonah's (enforced) comparison of his own plight with those of the people of Nineveh, God's empathy for Jonah (preparing the fish as passage to shore) as well as for the people of Nineveh—all of these episodes illuminate a central theme of the story, the extreme brevity of which deprives us the satisfaction of knowing whether these lessons bore enduring fruit. Maybe Jonah learns important life lessons. Maybe he just goes on sulking, being angry unto death.

And then, of course, there is the fish. The fact that Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights prior to being regurgitated onto dry land provided a deeper prophetic resonance to the story for early Christians. While that particular reading does not resonate with me, the less loaded idea of a transformative second chance does. For all of its drama, The Book of Jonah is a hopeful text in which even God reconsiders his actions and repents for his wrongdoing. Transformation waits at the ready as a perpetual Plan B, suggesting a more nuanced reality than simplistic tales of good and evil typically allow.