Chip MacGregor

December 20, 2013

On the loss of a mentor and friend


Yesterday one of my friends and mentors passed away. Jim Reimann was well known in the publishing community, having started a great bookstore in Atlanta, served as President of Family Christian Bookstores during their big growth phase, and having created a couple of bestselling books. Note that I say “created,” because he didn’t really write them — he took some classic old books and updated them into contemporary language. Back in the early 90’s, he took Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest, updated the language, then watched it sell hundreds of thousands of copies. In the late 90’s he took L.B. Cowman’s Streams in the Desert and updated it — giving new life to a treasured old devotional text. That book has sold millions, been produced in a couple dozen iterations, and has had a huge reach into the lives of spiritual seekers.

Jim did some other updates — he recently did contemporary versions of famed American preacher Charles Spurgeon’s Morning by Morning and Evening by Evening, and a dozen years ago he did a wonderful job of updating Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables — cutting the 70-page description of the Paris sewer system, bringing the dialogue into more contemporary language, and taking a wonderful novel that is often more revered than read and making it accessible to readers everywhere. He had recently gone back to Les Miserables, did a bit of fine tuning, and Jim and I had just signed a deal with Barbour Publishing to produce a new edition of his updated version. That will release next summer, and I’m proud to have been part of the process.

You may not know how you feel about “updated language” books, and there is certainly a valid argument that books ought to be left alone — that modern readers need to struggle through the wordiness of Dickens or the structure of having no paragraph breaks for an entire page. But I tend to see books as art, and updating classics can sometimes bring them alive to a new readership. I didn’t have a problem with a university professor tweaking The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to delete the references to the N-word, since Twain’s use of the phrase caused contemporary readers to shun what is arguably the best American novel ever produced. The updated versions of George MacDonald are not only easier to read, they’ve introduced a wonderful storyteller to an entirely new generation of readers who would have ignored him.  I think the updated versions of Pilgrim’s Progress are superior to the antiquated version. And we update our bible translations regularly (except for the fringy “King James Only” nutjobs). This is particularly true with novels written in other languages — who would complain that Homer’s Odyssey isn’t better in the recent Robert Fagle’s translation?

Jim saw the value of updating other people’s words, and always tried to treat the text with respect. He appreciated that great art could be lost or ignored if not occasionally contemporized. Tastes change (when was the last time you downloaded a CD with music from the 1800’s?), and this was Jim’s way of trying to keep the words and message in front of readers. Three years ago, when he and I were having a conversation about his efforts, he said to me, “I wonder if that’s going to be my legacy — that he took great classic books and brought them into updated versions that help keep them alive to readers?” I agreed that would be a fine legacy, having no idea in just a couple years he’d be taken away, too young, and his work left as his legacy.

But that’s not his only legacy, of course. Jim was a great businessman, a powerful thinker, and he had a profound effect on my life. I loved to hear him tell his story of how he got started in the book business back in the 70’s. He was a young man, with a degree in finance from Georgia State, and he went around to a bunch of friends and basically sold them shares in his future. He asked them for money, always in small amounts, as a personal loan, and explained that he was going to start a bookstore, and would pay them all back, plus interest, over time. He basically did what people do today on Kickstarter or  IndieGoGo, but he did it all on the force of his personality. And it worked — the Armory became a huge success, Jim paid back all his friends in short order, and by 1988 was named as the national Bookstore of the Year. The man had vision.

He also had a love for books and an appreciation for both good writing and sound business practices with books. And, like me, he loved the Atlanta Braves. On my summer trips to Atlanta, Jim and I would head over to The Ted to watch Chipper Jones hit, to swap stories, to talk books, and to joke about the $8 beers and $12 hotdogs. I never came away from a visit to Jim and Pam’s house without feeling encouraged, and feeling as though I knew more. He was wise, and calm, and always willing to talk with me and invest in me.

Just a couple months ago, Jim, who was 63, noticed he was having some memory problems. The doctor did tests, and the news was bad — he had Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, an infection of the lining in his brain. There’s no cure, not even a treatment. And it’s always fatal. The doctors told Jim he had maybe six months. He lasted two. When he died, yesterday, one of the wisest men I know passed away. He’ll be missed, in publishing and in my own life, and I hate having to write this. Rest in peace, my friend.

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  • Edwina Cowgill says:

    Chip, Although I did not know Jim personally, your blog allowed me to have a glimpse into the life of a man who obviously was a man of influence, great character and integrity. I know that you have lost a dear friend and my thoughts and prayers are with you and Jim’s family.May you be filled with the peace of God and good memories of a great friendship. Blessings, Edwina

  • Dawn Hill Shipman says:

    So sorry for your loss, Chip. Jim sounds like an amazing man and I’m so glad he was a part of your life. Take care of yourself–

  • Lynn D. Morrissey says:

    Chip, please accept my deepest condolences at the early loss of your great friend and a great man. Having lost a number of close friends, myself, this year, I have real empathy. While I so appreciate anyone who does important Kingdom work through words (and yes, their meanings and expressions evolve), I don’t think anyone can leave a greater legacy than to have loved well and to have been well loved. Christmas will be bittersweet for his family and you and his other friends as you miss such a treasured person; and it’s my prayer that it will be all the more poignant to know that Christ was born to give Jim new and eternal life.
    God bless you, Chip, and God bless Jim’s memory.
    Blessed Christmas,

  • I’m sorry, Chip, for the loss of your dear friend. He sounds like an amazing individual and it seems like the world will be a much better place for the book legacy he left behind…
    Donna L Martin

  • Robin Patchen says:

    What a beautiful tribute to your friend. I’m so sorry for your loss.

  • Janet Tronstad says:

    It’s always hard to lose a friend. My sympathies, Chip. What a wonderful tribute you wrote to him.

  • Wow! If I wasn’t already honored to be an author with MacLit, I’m even more so now. This is an amazing tribute to a great man, Chip. Thank you for composing it and sharing.

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