Well-Sorted Version


This is the "Well-Sorted Version", a Bible containing the complete text of the King James Version, alphabetized.

I wrote a program to read through the Bible and extract each letter in turn, preserving the order of lowercase and capital letters. The program then poured those sorted letters back into all the structure of books, chapters, verses, paragraphs, and words.

Here is a PDF sample of the first five pages and five more throughout the book.

For example, the KJV opens with the title, "The First book of Moses, called Genesis" and this book opens with "aaa aaaAa aAaa aA...." The length of each word matches up to the original, and the A's in the KJV appear in this order of upper and lower case.

Though it seems like gibberish at a glance, the book rewards careful examination. Capitals are not distributed but come and go in waves, giving clues to the content. Unsurprisingly, there are far more capital Js than lowercase. The capital K's appear in clumps as a name or the title 'King' is used. And there are exactly 7 uppercase Qs.

Without the distraction of recognizable words, the structure of the Bible is laid bare. Books vary greatly in length and structure; from the dense early Old Testament, carrying through the brief Apocrypha, to the poetry of the New Testament.

The cover is leather with a hot foil stamped title. The pages are acid and lignen free so they won't yellow, and cleat sewn into the spine rather than glued. In short, the book is of archival quality. If stored in a consistently cool, dark, fairly dry place it should last a few dozen centuries.

There are 26 copies of the Well-Sorted Version. Each is initialed and sequentially lettered in a small stamp on the last endpaper.


I got my idea from a similar project by Tauba Auerbach, which was laser-printed and hand-bound in cloth. Her Bible was sorted letters: a wall of text from A to Z, with no spaces or structure. I was curious about how I would write a program to alphabetize a book, so I hacked one out in a few hours and ran it on a text file of the Bible.

As soon as I saw the output I was hooked. I wanted to see what it would look like with the word spacing. Then, with punctuation. Finally, I wanted to see it with the full structure of the Bible, complete with headings and verse numbers, and typeset as a book. Not just on a screen, but in my hands.

To make that happen, I researched typography, printing, and document formatting systems. About half of my time went into writing the program to consume and produce typeset text. I used a document markup language called TeX that produces very high-quality output, but it was difficult to write a program that could alphabetize the text without alphabetizing the formatting commands.

The other half of my time went into typesetting to evoke the Bible. This included hand-checking all 580 pages for proper visual balance or typographical oddities, and reformatting the book or tweaking a single paragraph.

Finally, I researched several hundred printers to find one who could produce a very short run of high-quality books, and selected Grimm Bindery in Madison, WI. I didn't keep track, but I estimate I've spent 500 hours on this project.

I've written more about the tech and shared some of the code on my blog.


Spoiler warning

The WSV is not supposed to immediately make sense, and works best without me telling you What It All Means.

I also think artists who refuse to answer questions about their work are full of shit, so (to keep me honest, or if you are impatient) you can click here for my thoughts. But please do not read this.

The Well-Sorted Version started as a programming exercise. When I saw the output with words and spaces it became an obsession. It captured my imagination in a way that's taken me years and finally seeing someone open the finished product to fully articulate.

I grew up in an atheist household. I'd heard of the Bible, but it didn't sound any more interesting than any other classic literature. When people talk about books, we often talk from the perspective of the story's reality ("Juliet was bereft at Romeo's death.") rather than constantly reiterating that it's fiction ("Shakespeare wrote the character Juliet as if she was a real person who was bereft at the death of his other character Romeo.") I was 13 before I started to understand people weren't talking about the Bible this way out of convenience but out of a sincere belief that this was an actual description of real people, places, and history. The Bible had a reputation for wisdom, moral teachings, justice, compelling history, poetry, etc. but I was puzzled because I knew it also had stories about ghosts, gods, and magic spells.

So I checked out a copy from the library and read it, which was the most profoundly alienating experience of my life. I couldn't then, and still can't quite now, understand why anyone would believe such an overwhelmingly ridiculous, obviously false, and morally abhorrent book.

The Well-Sorted Version captured my imagination because it recreates the alienation I felt trying to reconcile the reputation and contents of the Bible.

The physical form of the book: the leather, the printing, the gilt, the ribbon, the heft, the care in typography, it all works to summon the reader's cultural associations of importance, trustworthiness, tradition. And then they open the book and the alphabetization smashes their expectations. There is no meaning, no wisdom to be found within. Their confusion about why someone would devote so much care to so little worth is my confusion over the Bible. That's what hooked me and drove me from tinkering to finally producing this. The reader feels what I did in an immediate, visceral way I can't transmit in words.

I've captured my feeling in a book. The Well-Sorted Version is my experience in tangible miniature.

Some small thoughts:

This book keeps all the content but loses all the meaning. All the data is there but ordering it has made it worthless. The closer it is to perfectly regular, the less use it is; information systems are interesting because of their complexity. This is nothing new to information theory, but it's a fun example.

Like any collation, though, the WSV gives a new perspective to its content. In this case the new information to be gleaned is minimal.

I like that the WSV points out how ridiculous the Bible is by being even more so, though I didn't recognize it as satire until a reader pointed it out.

Working on the WSV has been a pleasant reminder that most Christians are better than their Bible. Even though it's full of terrible things that believers excuse, ignore, or minimize, people are still fundamentally good to each other. Creating the WSV helped me be a calmer angry atheist.

Some religious people believe the Bible (in part, whole, or some specific version — often the KJV) is inerrant or even infallible. The existence of the WSV disproves the strongest of those positions; if supernatural forces were maintaining the accurate transmission of the Bible, it would not have been possible for me to create this. This also ties into the previous point: accurate knowledge of reality isn't received and preserved, it's earned by experimentation and argument.


The WSV was created by Peter Harkins, a computer programmer and book lover in Chicago.