“Bibliotheca could even break the $400,000 mark,” I said to the journalist on the other end of the line. “It already has,” she replied, clicking the keys. That was yesterday. This morning Adam Lewis Greene’s four-volume, reader-friendly edition of the Bible has passed the half million dollar mark and doesn’t show signs of slacking off. The project has gone viral, too, making a popular appearance at The Verge. The Bible Gateway blog has done a good in-depth interview with Adam, too. There’s no question now: the idea of an uncluttered, readable Bible resonates with a lot of people.
If you want to know more about Bibliotheca, here are my earlier posts on the topic:
Reader-friendly Bibles aren’t a new idea. Every so often a publisher makes the attempt (going back to the original release of the New English Bible and before), yet today the concept seems to be gaining momentum in a way it never has before. I’m not sure we can articulate a list of characteristics yet that make an edition a Reader’s Bible; the defining trait at this point seems to be removing verse numbers from the text. Bibliotheca does this, as does the ESV Reader’s Bible. So does The Books of the Bible, which I reviewed back in 2007.
Christopher Smith compares the features of Bibliotheca and the ESV Reader’s Bible to The Books of the Bible, which offers the NIV in a reader-friendly format (now available in a single volume or a four-volume set). The Books of the Bible goes farther than any other edition I’m aware of in rearranging the text to follow natural literary divisions rather than traditional chapter and verse, and Smith does a great job articulating the reasons behind these choices. He shares my optimism about the future of reader-friendly editions, too.
All the attention on reader-friendly Bibles has led to some interesting thoughts about what our experience with Scripture is meant to be. For example, I’m intrigued by Paul Sutton’s post about reading the Bible aloud. When I praise this emerging category of Bibles for offering a “less mediated” read, I’m not suggesting this marks a return to the original reading experience. Rather, I love reader-friendly Bibles because they improve the experience for today’s audience. I believe this is true whether we’re reading silently to ourselves or reading aloud to a group (or, as I’ve been known to do, reading aloud to ourselves). Whenever I design a text for out-loud reading in church, I format it the way a reader’s edition would be formatted: removing chapter and verse, presenting the text in a manner that is natural for reading. The importance of hearing Scripture read aloud can’t be stressed too much, and I believe the new generation of reader’s editions will make that practice smoother.
As the Bibliotheca campaign draws to a close this Sunday, I’ll be rooting for it not only as an early backer but as someone who sees the success of Adam’s project as a new chapter in the long journey to make reader’s Bibles a viable alternative to sit side-by-side with the ubiquitous reference editions. This project has introduced a host of people to the design problems of the Bible who’ve never thought about the subject before, and more importantly, should result in a beautiful edition of the Bible which will serve as a lifelong companion to many people, and an inspiration for future publishing endeavors.
I’d like to highlight a comment from earlier today, because Steve Atherton’s experience with the ESV Reader’s Bible echoes my own:
“I have had a few days now to read my copy of the ESV Reader’s Bible and it has been an amazing experience. I was hesitant at first since the ESV isn’t my preferred translation but I’ve been surprised how the format somehow lends itself to an appreciation of the translation. Due to the format, I find myself reading longer than my reading plan calls for in a given day. I appreciate the lack of distractions such as verse numbers, references and footnotes. I have the cloth over board edition and it is crafted very well given the price. This edition has given me a new appreciation for hard back Bibles.”
Someone on the Bible Design Blog fan page on Facebook suggested a couple of days ago that the idea of a “reader-friendly” Bible is just marketing hype, because he’d never had any difficulty personally reading the traditional reference layouts. Though well intended this view — which is certainly not unique to one individual — ignores the fact that, well, readability is a thing. The fact that you can manage just fine doesn’t mean the experience is optimal. Reader-friendly design attempts to create an optimal, not passible, reading experience, like the one Steve describes above.
Most of us understand the impact of design choices on readability when it comes to type size. No one would seriously argue that 6-point type is just as easy to read as 12-point type. Personally, I can read 6-point type. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t prefer the print to be larger. Unfortunately, until you experience the difference, most of us are unaware of the other ways design influences reading habits. Even those of us who are can be surprised by the difference good design makes.
Take me, for instance. If you’d told me before I left home in early June with only the ESV Reader’s Bible (supplemented by the Pocket NT and the Psalms) that I would find myself reading much more, and much longer passages than I had with either my Clarion or my Legacy, I would have been skeptical. In the Legacy’s case, the paper is better, the type larger … the only difference is that the ESV Reader’s Bible is smaller in size and doesn’t have verse numbers. Yet, like Steve, I’ve found myself getting sucked into the reader, coming up for air much later than expected. Is that solely the result of design? I don’t really know. But the design certainly plays a role.
Think of it this way. If you were the designer and someone gave you the task of formatting the Bible’s text for reading, what intentional choices would you make? Would you end up with something closer to the “traditional formatting,” or would you model your choices on other texts intended for deep reading? The odds are, even if the apparatus doesn’t distract you anymore, if you were starting from scratch with the goal of readability, you’d design something similar to a Reader’s Bible.
The release of the ESV Reader’s Bible and the launch of Bibliotheca have made the past couple of weeks rather exciting for those of us eager for well-designed, reader-friendly Bibles. Since I posted my review of the ESV Reader’s Bible and subsequent thoughts on its use, and my original notice about Bibliotheca followed by a two-part interview with designer Adam Lewis Greene (Part 1, Part 2), I’ve been thinking quite a bit about what these developments signal for Bible publishing in general. This will take a few paragraphs to develop, with my conclusions toward the end. — JMB
The runaway success of the Bibliotheca funding campaign raises some interesting questions, given that the concept—a four-volume edition of the Bible designed for reading—flies in the face of Bible publishing’s received wisdom. Comparisons to Crossway’s recently-released hardcover ESV Reader’s Bible are apt, though Bibliotheca represents a more extreme (perhaps the right word is pure) interpretation of the idea. While the ESV Reader’s Bible, by dispensing with verse numbers and other textual intrusions, provides a more immersive reading experience than the ubiquitous reference layouts, the fact that it’s available in a popular translation and presents the text in its traditional order in a single volume makes the Reader’s Bible practical, once the initial learning curve is past, for use in group settings, for teaching, and so on. Bibliotheca’s four-volume division and the re-ordering of books suggests it won’t be as versatile, focusing instead on the individual reader’s experience of the text. The appeal of the edition is this: you find a secluded nook and find yourself drawn into the biblical narrative, page after page, in a way you’ve never experienced before.
Frankly, choosing the American Standard Version reinforces this goal. I don’t think very many churches or Bible studies use the ASV, and while it certainly has its fans, they don’t quite rise to the level of a following. The ASV isn’t a translation to hitch your wagon to. Using it doesn’t guarantee a loyal fan base like, say, the ESV would. Adam makes a compelling case for his choice, and the fact that he’s sticking by it despite having raised enough money to license whichever version he might prefer suggests the decision is down to much more than the fact that the ASV is in the public domain. He sees the translation contributing to Bibliotheca’s literary experience. For those of us who haven’t read the ASV before, this will contribute to the feeling of discovery when you curl up on the couch with a Bibliotheca volume.
Early in the life of Bible Design Blog, I made the decision not to engage in translation discussions, not because I don’t find them interesting, but because they tend to grow a little fiery and overshadow other points. There’s no question, though, that translation loyalty plays a major role in Bible publishing. Every time an interesting new edition comes out, there’s a wistful chorus asking, “Why can’t we have something like this for Translation X?” There are practical reasons for these preferences, and while my advice has always been, echoing St Augustine, to compare translations rather than relying wholly on any one, I sympathize with (and have occasionally led) said chorus.
If you’d told me a month ago that today I would be anxiously awaiting a new edition of the American Standard Version, I would have been doubtful. But here I am, doing precisely that, and unlike some people I’m not backing Bibliotheca in the hope that its success will lead to a future edition in the translation of my choice. I’m actually looking forward to the entire project as Adam envisioned it.
And I am delighted by the fact that this overnight success is being enjoyed by a Bible publishing project featuring a translation very few of us are stumping for. Let me explain why ….
At the time I’m writing this, Bibliotheca has exceeded its original $37,000 goal by over $100,000. There’s plenty of time left on the clock, too, so Adam could raise a good bit more. This has happened despite the fact that Bibliotheca is a four-volume edition (which anyone could have told you was a losing proposition before the evidence proved otherwise) and despite the fact that the American Standard Version doesn’t have a huge underground following that’s been waiting for a chance to support a comeback. To me, that suggests that Bibliotheca’s remarkable success is due to the narrative of design-for-readability that undergirds the project. Once the vision for a reader-friendly Bible was cast, it resonated with people, including many who may never have given much thought before to the physical form of the Bible.
I have a feeling that Bibliotheca’s publication, from start to finish, will provide a treasure-trove of lessons for those of us interested in what the next chapter in Bible design and production will look like. Here are a few thoughts I’m ready to put forward:
1. IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT THE TRANSLATION. As important as translations are, our ready access to many different ones has dulled the edge of old-fashioned translation loyalty—and if the story behind the edition is compelling, we can set aside those preferences.
2. COMMUNICATING THE VISION IS ALMOST AS IMPORTANT AS PUBLISHING THE EDITION. Compare the Bibliotheca video to the clip Crossway uploaded to Vimeo promoting the ESV Reader’s Bible. The Crossway video is good, but the Bibliotheca video is great. It’s a much more detailed and compelling presentation of the reader-friendly design ethic. You come away from the Bibliotheca video a convert to the idea of a readable, novel-like Bible, and new converts love to share. Imagine how differently we’d be talking about Bibliotheca if a publisher had bankrolled the publication, then added the SKU to a dozen others in the catalog, promoted by a paragraph or two of bland copy and a snapshot of the packaging. The success of Bibliotheca is the result of a strong, realized concept that is compellingly presented. Now imagine a Bibliotheca-style video for the ESV Reader’s Bible being screened at every conference Crossway attends. That’s the future of physical Bibles.
3. LISTEN TO THE VISIONARIES. Publishing is like any other business: the people with the best ideas aren’t always the ones with the most pull. Designers know design best, but they’re often near the bottom of the totem pole, which means their vision is tempered by layers of conservatizing influences. Bibliotheca proves that you can find success by leading with good design. The only reason we know that, however, is that Kickstarter allowed the designer with a vision to go straight to the public. The lesson for publishers should be obvious: “We’ve got to start listening to our visionaries.” When you’re trying to connect in an aesthetic age where the language of design has gone mainstream, not listening to your designers is a habit you cling to at your peril.
This is just the beginning. The ESV Reader’s Bible and Bibliotheca, though, are two strikes of a bell that’s going to ring more insistently over the next few years. It’s time for Bibles that make the scriptures accessible to us first and foremost as readers.
This is the second part of my interview with Bibliotheca’s Adam Lewis Greene. If you haven’t read Part 1, start here. Last time we talked about the origins of the project, Adam’s passion for the Bible and good design, and the thought that went into designed Bibliotheca’s original typefaces. In this part, I ask Adam about the layout, his choice of the American Standard Version, and what the runaway success of the funding campaign might mean for Bibliotheca’s future.
J. MARK BERTRAND: Your decision not to justify the text column threw me at first. Now I think I understand, but since I’m a stickler for Bibles looking like books meant to be read, and novels are universally justified, could you explain what’s at stake in the choice to leave the right margin ragged?
ADAM LEWIS GREENE: This goes back, again, to the idea of hand-writing as the basis for legible text. When we write, we don’t measure each word and then expand or contract the space between those words so each line is the same length. When we run out of room, we simply start a new line, and though we have a ragged right edge, we have consistent spacing. The same is true of the earliest manuscripts of biblical literature, which were truly formatted to be read. I’m thinking of the Isaiah scroll, which I was privileged to see in Israel last year and is the primary model for my typesetting.
True, since the beginning of the printed book we have most often seen justified text, but back then they were much less discriminatory about word-breaks and hyphenation, so that consistent spacing was not an issue (i.e. imagine breaking the word “Her” after “He-”).
Unjustified text was revived by the likes of Gill and Tschichold early in the last century, and it continues to gain steam, especially in Europe. We are starting to see unjustified text much more frequently in every-day life, especially in digital form, and I would argue we are slowly becoming more accustomed to evenly spaced words than to uniform line-length. To me, justified type is really a Procrustean Bed. Too many times while reading have I leapt a great distance from one word to the next, only to be stunted by the lack of space between words on the very next line. I admit, I think justified text looks clean and orderly when done well, but it doesn’t do a single thing in the way of legibility. It is simply what we have been accustomed to for a long time, and since this project is partially about breaking down notions of how things “ought to be,” I ultimately decided to go with what I believe is the most legible approach; not to mention its suitability for ancient hand-written literature.
JMB: Bibliotheca will use the American Standard Version, and you’re planning to update the archaisms and make additional editorial changes based on Young’s Literal Translation. How extensive a revision of the ASV do you have in mind? What will the process look like?
ALG: While we’re on the topic I would like to touch on the choice of the ASV for this edition. Aside from being my favorite complete translation, to me, its literary character and formal accuracy make it the ideal choice for this project.
I appreciate and respect those who have other opinions, and I hope the success of this project will enable me to offer Bibliotheca in other translations. Obviously an unaltered Authorized Version would be wonderful, as would more popular contemporary translations. We will see.
As for editing the translation, aside from replacing the redundant archaisms (thee, hath, doth, etc.), modification will be extremely minimal. I will use Young’s Literal Translation (not my own whims) as an authority, and it will mainly function as a backup for syntax. If Young says something more plainly where the ASV is overly convoluted by Elizabethan, I will adopt Young’s syntax but will preserve the ASV’s vocabulary as much as possible. After all, Bibliotheca is for reading, and I believe using an even more literal translation for editing syntax is a safe limitation. In other words, I won’t be changing the ASV much at all; probably a fraction of one percent.
For those interested, I have added more details on the use of Young’s translation as an authority to the Editing the Translation section of the Kickstarter page.
JMB: I know the rapid success of Bibliotheca—you reached your funding goal in a little over 24 hours, and are set to surpass it by a considerable amount—was a pleasant surprise. It’s not over yet, and you may be too busy to indulge in speculation, but what do you think the outpouring of enthusiasm for Bibliotheca signifies to the world of Bible publishing?
ALG: I think the response to this project signifies that the biblical anthology is much too large (and I don’t mean in a physical sense) to be contained in any one format or type of reading experience. This is a diverse literature, which transcends time, culture and style in a way that very few have done, and none to the same extent. It has always taken on different forms within various contexts—artistic and technical, story-driven and study-driven. These forms will continue to change and, at times, surprise us.
I also believe that the increased ability to dynamically study the biblical literature through web-based technology creates space for a project like this—by which we experience the text exclusively as story—to exist and thrive.
JMB: Any thoughts on how Bibliotheca’s fundraising success will change and expand the scope of the project?
ALG: I thought I would be inching through this 30-day campaign toward the $37,000 goal. After reaching it in something like twenty-seven hours, and as I write this six days into the campaign, with twenty-three days left, that goal is nearly tripled and there are more than a thousand people behind the project.
So to answer your question, the scope of the project has already been changed by the overwhelmingly positive response of the backers. Their excitement, backing and sharing are making this into something that is at very least three times what I imagined, and that very well could be available in a second and third print run, in other translations and languages, and maybe even in book stores across the nation.
I know that’s big thinking, but Kickstarter has made it possible to deliver ideas directly to people who believe in them. They are the ones who decide which ideas will have a life beyond the campaign. Time will tell, but for now I am thrilled that Bibliotheca is becoming a reality, even if only this once.
In closing, I want to thank you, Mark, for backing the project and giving it such positive coverage. It is an absolute honor to have Bibliotheca featured, talked about, and scrutinized on your blog.
If this was an on-location interview, I would be admiring your legendary collection of rare bibles right now.
JMB: Thanks, Adam. I’m glad you could take the time from what I know has been a crazy week to share these thoughts with Bible Design Blog readers. If we were doing this on location, I’d give you free run of the library … and while you were distracted, I’d help myself to those beautiful fonts!
The Bibliotheca Kickstarter campaign ends on July 27. If you haven’t already backed Bibliotheca, I encourage you to do it. This will be a groundbreaking publication. Needless to say, you’ll be reading more about it on Bible Design Blog.
Bibliotheca is taking Kickstarter by storm. Adam Lewis Greene’s four volume edition of the Bible hit its $37,000 funding goal in just over twenty-four hours, and has now blown past the $100,000 mark with weeks to go. More than a thousand backers have gotten behind the project, which is being talked about all over the Internet. I mentioned the project over the weekend, and now I’m happy to bring you the first part of my interview with Adam Lewis Greene.
J. MARK BERTRAND: I backed the project before I even watched the Bibliotheca video, and when I did watch it, I was blown away. So much is packed into those seven minutes! You’ve distilled the argument for reader-friendly Bibles so elegantly that it’s clear you’ve put a lot of thought into the subject. How long have you been planning Bibliotheca? Did the idea emerge fully formed, or did you refine it over time?
ADAM LEWIS GREENE: I want to start by saying that it was my two very close friends, Daniel and Joseph of Good. Honest., who deserve credit for crafting the content of the project into to a concise message via video. They are true story tellers. If it was left to me, it would be a scattered, technical mess, filled with typographic jargon (much like the rest of this interview will likely be). They know me well, and they took the time to understand the project and my passion for it, and then offered up the beating heart of it for everyone to see.
To answer your question, I have had some form of this idea in mind for about four years now, although the seed was planted more than a decade ago. I remember, as a teenager, reading through the books of Samuel and, upon finishing, thinking to myself, “This story is as invigorating as any story I’ve ever read, seen, or heard.” What is strange to me now is how surprising a revelation that was. Having grown up with the literature, why didn’t I already think of it as engaging?
Years later, when this idea first came upon me it was fairly similar in my mind to what you see now. But I wrestled with it a great deal, changing and molding it into several expressions, before coming full circle. I am glad it went through that process, because even though it is close to what I conceived in the first place, it is much more nuanced and layered than what I could have done before exploring the possibilities.
JMB: Where did your passion for Bible design come from?
ALG: In my independent reading of biblical scholarship, I have been deeply affected by the work of Robert Alter, N.T. Wright and Kenneth Bailey, among others. Their work has shown me the power and intention of the Bible as literary art, intended to be read and enjoyed. On the other hand, I have spent the last half-decade of my professional life developing as a book designer and typographer, reading and applying the masters of those disciplines—Eric Gill, Jan Tschichold, Hans Mardersteig, Gerrit Noordzij, Robert Bringhurst, etc.
It was only a short time before those two threads—biblical studies & book design—converged and became inseparably intertwined.
And then I found your blog, and, well, you know… that was that.
JMB: The factor that “solves” a lot of the traditional challenges with Bible publishing—the tiny text, the thin, translucent paper—is dividing the text into multiple volumes. The Nonesuch Bible, for example, contains three, and Bibliotheca will have four. Whenever I’ve floated the idea in the past, it’s been met with resistance: I’m told people don’t want the Bible in several parts. But the success of Bibliotheca contradicts that. Why do you think there’s a sudden openness to a multi-volume Bible? Is it a question of reaching a different kind of reader?
ALG: I am not sure whether this is a different kind of reader or not. Obviously, the economy and practicality of a single volume is appealing, but there is also an idea out there that the biblical library belongs together in one volume, because “that’s the way it has always been, and was always meant to be.” Understandably—and this included me until I became really nerdy about bible design—a lot of people who read and appreciate the biblical literature don’t know much about the history of its physical form. Why would they? The format of the Bible as it has been given to us for generations took shape in the post-enlightenment world of empiricism, often more concerned about demonstrable facts than the enjoyment of beauty. Now, I believe (or hope), we are coming out of that, to a more balanced place. We have to remember, for more than a thousand years the people who most revered this literature would never have thought to combine it into one volume, or read it as a single book, or strew it about with numbers. These stories were unified, not by being bound into a single volume, but by the culture, belief, and hopes of a people. Once we are exposed to this little bit of history, I think it becomes somewhat easy to take the step of separating the text.
Another factor might be that the ubiquitously encyclopedic format of the Bible has alienated many people over the years, to the point that they don’t actually have any expectations of what a bible should look like, or how many volumes it should be. It could be that it’s not the resistant group of people changing their minds, but an entirely new group of people showing interest.
Truthfully, though, it is hard to say exactly what has happened here, but I know that from the time I started sharing the idea it was met by some with great interest, and by others, not so much. Whatever the case, the conditions are clearly right for something like this. Even the fact that I thought it needed to be done (and I know I’m not the only one) is a reflection of where we stand as a culture in relation to this literature.
To be very clear, I am not offering up Bibliotheca as a replacement of the study-driven formatting of bibles, but as an alternative reading experience.
JMB: You’ve developed a beautiful serif typeface for the text, and a san serif for titles that I love about as much as Wes Anderson loves Futura. The logic of most Bible fonts these days seems to be packing more words onto the line legibly, but you’ve gone in a different direction. Can you tell me a little bit about the process of designing the fonts?
ALG: Before I go on about this, I would like to warn the reader that asking me about type is a Pandora’s box. So, for those of you who are not interested in typefaces, I recommend skipping ahead.
But the quick answer to that question: A main goal of this project was/is to achieve an extremely readable experience through extravagantly optimized typography. I decided early on that I would cut absolutely no corners. If you want to fit the text into one manageably sized single-column volume, you’re likely going to have to push the limit of characters on each line. This is not my idea of “sparing no expense.” I’ll leave out all the math here, but I think Gill explains it most simply: his ideal is about ten to twelve words per line, and no more than fifteen. His Essay on Typography, both in content and in form, is my favorite reading on the topic of line-length and text alignment.
As I mention in the video, designing an original typeface came out of a desire to imitate the ancient Hebrew scribal tradition, in which a “set apart” script is used exclusively for sacred writings.
Backing up a step: At the top of the food-chain in type design right now, in my opinion, is Gerrit Noordzij. He happens to be very passionate about biblical literature himself, and has even mentioned that we need to stop packing it into one volume. Coincidentally, his major contribution to the discipline of type design—and, for that matter, legibility—has been his reversion to hand-writing as a basis for legible type. He would say that the history of type is the history of idealized hand-writing.
Inspired by the Hebrew scribal tradition, and equipped with the theories of Noordzij, I undertook the task of learning how to write, with a broad-nibbed pen, the traditional forms upon which most book typefaces are still based. Of course this was a slow process, but I was determined to understand firsthand how writing informs type. It has been very rewarding as a type designer.
I know you are familiar with the work of Hans “Giovanni” Marderstieg and Bram de Does. Both are in roughly the same theoretical camp as Noordzij. I am an avid admirer of their work, and—because I am young in the discipline of type design and probably not yet capable of anything truly original—I have to say that my typeface is probably little more than an amalgamation of Marderstieg’s strikingly beautiful Zino and de Does’ strong yet elegant Lexicon. Add a pinch of Eric Gill and there you have it. I am a little embarrassed to mention these names, as my work certainly pales to all of theirs, but I have to give them credit.
Also, something that is easy to forget about type is that it is not only black, but also white that needs designing. You are not only shaping letters, but also the spaces between them, which are equally important in achieving rhythm and legibility. These three—Noordzij, de Does, and Mardersteig—all display a masterful grasp of this balance, and that is why I have adopted various aspects of their approaches.
That said, working with my own typeface has been ideal because I am able to optimize it precisely for the size at which it will be set, the measure of the column, the amount of leading between lines, etc.
As for the sans serif typeface: I am glad I finished the capital alphabet before launching the campaign (I wasn’t sure if I would), and I am thrilled it has a fan in you, Mark! I have always loved Futura, one of the few great sans serif typefaces with genuinely classical proportions, but I also enjoy the natural terminals (angled ends of the strokes) in Kabel and the more humanistic tendencies of Gill Sans. So, I just did what I like, using the the essential forms of my book typeface as a basis. I’m proud of the result.
As a note: Since I was not yet finished with my typeface for the film shoot, the prototype in the video features the very excellent Scala Sans on the gold-lettered spines, but that will be replaced with my sans serif for the actual edition. Didn’t want there to be any confusion there.
That’s the end of Part 1. Tomorrow I’ll post the second part of our interview, in which I ask about layout, editing the ASV, and the impact the funding campaign’s success may have on the future of Bibliotheca.
I’d like to highlight a comment from earlier today, because Steve Atherton’s experience with the ESV Reader’s Bible echoes my own: “I have had a few days now…
The release of the ESV Reader’s Bible and the launch of Bibliotheca have made the past couple of weeks rather exciting for those of us eager for well-designed,…
This is the second part of my interview with Bibliotheca’s Adam Lewis Greene. If you haven’t read Part 1, start here. Last time we talked about the origins…
Bibliotheca is taking Kickstarter by storm. Adam Lewis Greene’s four volume edition of the Bible hit its $37,000 funding goal in just over twenty-four hours, and has now…