Originally published in the Swedenborg Foundation’s newsletter Logos, in the winter of 2003.
By Jonathan S. Rose and Stuart Shotwell
Sometimes people ask why the New Century Edition volumes are so large. The first thing we like to point out is that Swedenborg’s writings themselves are nothing if not rich and ample. The Bible text of Genesis and Exodus fills only ninety-nine pages in the New King James Version; yet Secrets of Heaven, Swedenborg’s exposition of these books, fills 4,559 Latin pages.
But it is worth remembering that Swedenborg’s works are much smaller than they might have been. He often indicates that he could have said more, that the subject matter is far vaster than his ability to deal with it. Though his topics were divine, as a mortal he faced specific limitations of time, money, and energy; and he was, after all, working entirely alone, at least in this world.
Put yourself at Swedenborg’s writing desk for a moment. Can you see yourself tackling a description even of our physical globe for people who had never experienced it—in only 272 pages? Swedenborg took no more than that to write Heaven and Hell, a work about the unimaginably vast realms of heaven, hell, and the world of spirits. Can you see yourself completing an account of creation, including the development of human beings, in no more than sixty-five pages? Parts 4 and 5 in Divine Love and Wisdom (§§282–342) cover this subject in just so much text. Or can you see yourself completing a work on the topic of the Lord in only sixty-four pages? That is the length of The Lord, Swedenborg’s full exposition of the subject.
Swedenborg bore a message of tremendous importance for the world. He had to stay focused. For a time, he alone held answers to questions that had plagued the greatest minds for millennia. In general, he limited his writing to specific points and covered them thoroughly and with astounding clarity. That was ultimately the only way he succeeded in explaining, publishing, and distributing them.
All the same, Swedenborg’s originals do seem massive when compared to popular works today. Publishers nowadays generally aim to make books that are as small as possible without compromising readability. Not only are smaller books cheaper to produce, but the bookstore shelf space on which they must be displayed is now seen as precious “real estate.” The less space a book occupies, the easier it is for a distributor to persuade a retailer to stock it.
Swedenborg was not operating under any such constraints. He also loved books and understood their tremendous potential as teachers and persuaders. He knew that the love and care that are lavished on a book intrinsically bespeak the publisher’s attitude toward it. Every time we take one of Swedenborg’s original volumes in our hands, even before we open it, we are overcome by the sense that he cared deeply about the contents of his books—that he loved these truths he told. His care is reflected in the sheer size of the volumes, with their thick paper and ample margins. To sit quietly with one of his original books spread open, reverently reading, allows us to recapture a sense of his own reverence for the wonders he related. Helen Keller, who as a blind person necessarily had a very tactile experience of the writings, described this feeling in these words:
“I bury my fingers in this great river of light that is higher than all the stars, deeper than the silence that enfolds me. It alone is great, while all else is small, fragmentary. . . . I plunge my hands deep into my large Braille volumes containing Swedenborg’s teachings, and withdraw them full of the secrets of the spiritual world.” (Light in My Darkness, pp. 144–145)
The New Century Edition harmonizes with Swedenborg’s intentions and reverses the current trend in publishing. It imitates Swedenborg’s originals in size, in width of margins, and in quality of paper and printing. In fact, it exceeds the originals in length, since English requires many words to say what Latin can say with few; and it adds extensive aids to bridge the chasm between the eighteenth and the twenty-first centuries—prefaces, introductions, notes, bibliographies, and indexes. As a result, the New Century Edition volumes stand as tall and deep on the shelf as the originals, but include roughly double the number of pages. In fact, the New Century Edition Heaven and Hell is exactly twice the number of pages of Swedenborg’s first edition.
The new translations appearing in the New Century Edition are likely to be adapted to many forms in the coming years—paperback editions, electronic versions, even audio versions. The new Heaven and Hell has already appeared in a smaller, portable version without the annotations of the hardcover. But it is our hope that when new readers pick up one of the The New Century Edition hardcover volumes, when they open it and see both the clear, acid-free paper on which it is printed and the ample size of the type and the margins, they will understand intuitively the great love and care that went into it. They will say, “Someone really loves these words.” And that in itself will be a great argument and a great persuader to plunge more deeply into what Keller called “this great river of light.”