There Can Be Only One: Grail quests and the lessons of discontentment

My friend Alan Cornett of Pinstripe Pulpit fame lets his light shine in several venues (including this one). He wrote recently about the metaphorical “grail quest” familiar to every obsessive consumer, the dream of finding the One. His post at No Man Walks Alone sums up certain characteristics of the Grail. It should be rare and worthy. It should require some hunting to find. It should merit sacrifice, and perhaps most important: it ought to satisfy.

For Alan the grail was a pair of Hermes cufflinks. I’ve seen them. They fit the description. I’ve never asked whether he had visions of them in the night, but I could well imagine John Boorman directing such a scene. For me the object of the quest is different. I’ve been looking for the ideal edition of the Bible.

Many of you are on a similar quest, longing for editions that are hard to obtain, either because they are out of print or out of your price range — or because they’ve never existed anywhere but in your imagination. (That’s me.) Along the road you may have picked up many close-enough editions, perfectly good as far as they go, but ultimately unsatisfying. But of course you don’t know they’re unsatisfying until you buy the next one.

Personally, I don’t collect Bibles. For the blog, I do accumulate them, but that’s not the same thing. My dream has always been to find the One, and then to be content. Alan sold a bunch of other cufflinks to fund the Hermes ones, and once he’d slotted those knotted puppies through his double cuffs, the urge for more subsided. That’s the way it will be for me, too, I hope.

I know it’s fashionable to dismiss such longings as mere consumerism. You’re just dreaming of acquiring more stuff. To me the experience seems more complex. For those of us who are Christian, isn’t there something more to be gleaned from a universal discontent that aspires to an ideal perfection which the mind locates in obtaining the One? I’ve always taken such intuitions, pitting the way things are against the way things ought to be, as echoes of the conflict between being made in the image of an ideal perfection, and the shattering of that ideal through a fall so catastrophic that longing for any ideal now seems like self-deception. The longing is good, in other words, though it requires channeling to remain so.

While giving up on such unobtainable longings may seem the wisest course, isn’t it really a form of denial masquerading as wisdom? To purge oneself of hope in the name of realism — to condemn the desire on one hand, or to embrace it as a cyclical expression of human emptiness never to be fulfilled — feels cynical to me, and about as moral as giving up on justice because we will never in this life be fully just.

Perhaps a pair of cufflinks or a nicely made book — physical objects, mere trinkets in the overall scheme — are not enough of a foundation to support such philosophizing. Call me crazy, but I sometimes think they are the only foundation. These things aren’t much in themselves, but as objects they represent, perhaps even incarnate, certain ideas which are everything, and which never seem to find expression without first taking on some form, even a trifling one.

So You Want to Publish a Bible?

A reader named Adam posed this question recently:

“I am looking at publishing an edition of the Bible that will likely be 3,000+ pages. Do you know of any self-publishing options for that? I can’t afford normal publishers with a minimum order of 1,000 copies.”

We live in the age of digital short-run printing, after all, so a one-off custom edition doesn’t seem like such a stretch. Even so, the answer to the question as far as I can tell is: there is nowhere you can turn for a custom one-off Bible. That’s because, even though it’s easy to self-publish a book these days, the technology that makes it so easy doesn’t handle the super-thin specialty papers used in Bible printing. 

But suppose you’re looking to publish a small edition for sale? Like Adam, you don’t want to pay a publisher to run 1,000 copies. Isn’t there an easier way to get the ball rolling? A lot of people who never dreamed of becoming publishers ten years ago are getting into the racket now. It’s just so easy! Upload your PDF and wait by the mailbox until, lo and behold, physical books arrive. Authors are publishing their own books, people are starting small magazines left and right. Can’t we do the same thing with the Bible?

The problem for would-be boutique publishers is the same as for those of us dreaming of one-off customs: none of the digital print houses output on thin Bible paper. (At least, they didn’t last time I checked. If I’m overlooking somebody, please let me know.) Your 3,000 page book is going to be an absolute brick, assuming the printer can handle it at all. The best solution for those of you with the publishing itch is to publish an edition in portions. (See Chad Whitacre’s The Gospels as an example.) This cuts down your page count and makes your project manageable for digital printing.

There is a second option. You want professional results but you can’t afford to pay for them? Here’s the answer: do some fundraising. Get a quote from a good designer, have some sample page spreads made. Take them to a printer who specialized in Bibles, choose your specs, and see how much it will cost. Then pitch your project and raise some money. Technology has revolutionized fundraising as much as it has publishing (see Kickstarter). You never know what will happen.

As any working designer will tell you, it’s much easier to raise the money to do the job right than to figure out a way of getting the job done right without a budget.


Schuyler Quentel Reference Bible (NASB) in Firebrick Red Goatskin


Introducing the Quentel NASB in Firebrick Red. Designed by 2K/Denmark. Printed and bound by Jongbloed. Type: 11 pt. Paper: 45 gsm

The Quentel NASB, the first reference Bible in a new line from Schuyler, features a new typesetting by the Danish firm 2k/Denmark and was printed and bound in the Netherlands by Jongbloed. To make the Quentel stand out, Schuyler specified 11-point type and a luxurious 45gsm paper, two choices that make this edition roughly the size and weight of an ESV Study Bible. This is not a thinline by any means and won’t charm the weight weinies out there, either. If you can manage the girth, however, the Quentel offers nice big type and vintage-style opacity. In essence Schuyler has done what a lot of Bible Design Blog readers dream of: they jettisoned the thinline chic to find out what happens when you increase type and paper thickness. If you ask me, the Quentel is a triumph.

The specs from look like this:

Goatskin Covers with Full Leather lining
11 point font
Line Matching
45 GSM Bible Paper (most opaque in the industry)
6 x 9 trim size
16 mm margins (approx 0.65″)
45mm bulk (thickness) – approx 1.5″
4 x 1cm ribbons (All Navy Blue)
Art-Gilt edging (red under gold) with gilt line (gold line inside the cover)
9mm yapp
Smyth Sewn
Black letter text (chapter numbers, headers and page number in red)
more than 95,000 entry cross references
Concordance, 4,025, 20,000 Scripture references.
7 presentation pages
32 pages of extensive oxford maps

To put this new edition in context, I stacked it up with two Bibles I use just about every day, the Cambridge Clarion and the Crossway Legacy (the one in the photos was rebound by Leonard’s Book Restoration). Both are single column settings. I chose the Clarion because it’s the reference edition I’m most likely to recommend, and the Legacy because its footprint is the same as the Quentel’s. As you can see in the photo, the Quentel is significantly thicker than both, and while it stacks up even with the Legacy in height and width, it dwarves the Clarion.


The Quentel compared to the Cambridge Clarion (top) and the Crossway Legacy (bottom)


The Quentel compared to Crossway’s ESV Study Bible (bottom)

The closest match to the Quentel I could find was the ESV Study Bible (pictured above), which mirrors the Quentel in all three dimensions and weighs about the same to boot. This should give you some perspective when it comes to carrying the Quentel. If you found the ESV Study Bible to be a brick, you’re going to feel the same way about the Quentel. Don’t say I didn’t warn you: this Bible is big.


In October I posted a link to Andreas Krautwald’s reflections on designing the Quentel. His piece offers a detailed walkthrough of the main features. While I haven’t met Andreas, I had the pleasure several years ago of sitting down with Klaus Krogh and Thomas Silkjaer at the International Christian Retail Show, giving me an opportunity to gush about the Design and Production Bible showcasing the work 2k/Denmark (then 2Krogh) and Jongbloed have done together. Ever since I got my hands on that book, I’ve been encouraging people in Bible publishing to go the whole way and have an edition designed by 2k/Denmark and printing and bound by Jongbloed. In fact, during that same weekend at ICRS, I had this conversation with Sky Cline of, who was already thinking along the same lines.


The Quentel at first glance appears to be a conventional two column text setting. It looks almost conservative. The design doesn’t scream for you to look at it, but when you do, you notice several refinements. The references are placed at the bottom of the page — textual notes at the end of the outside column, and cross-references in a single column at the foot of the page. This allows more space for the text itself, which the Quentel needs given its 11-point type.

Another refinement is the use of red ink to offset page headers and chapter numbers, and a red rule to separate the text from the references. In traditional printing, using red as an accent for aesthetic purposes was commonplace. Now we tend to associate the practice with red-letter Bibles, especially in North America where the trend got started. The Quentel’s use of red lends the layout a classical elegance I find very attractive to the eye. It helps that the printing was done so superbly.



Here’s another thing I’ve noticed about the Quentel. You know how two column text settings tend to slice-and-dice poetry sections? You end up with choppy breaks and often a word all alone on the line. Reading the poetry sections in the Quentel, I was impressed how carefully set they seemed. I’m not sure if this required special effort, or if the combination of the NASB text and the type size was serendipitous — but as a writing professor of mine once said, if you did the work, you get credit for the result. Hopefully other Quentel readers will chime in with their experiences. To me, the poetry here looks much better than I expect a two column setting to appear.


My first real job, circa 1986, was setting type, so I’ve always had a special appreciation for good typography. When you set type in all-caps, the elegant thing to do is reduce the size in relation to the rest of the type, so that it doesn’t shout. You can also letter-space the capitals. I can only imagine how frustrating it is for the designers who work on my novels: they receive my hand-annotated galleys with instructions like “make all-caps small-caps!” accompanied by citations from Robert Bringhurst. While I do not consider myself an expert, I can appreciate the work of those who are. The Quentel’s small headers and its nicely-scaled section headings fill me with joy.


As you look at the photo above, a page spread from Exodus, you can get a feeling for just how thick the Quentel is. The edge-lined binding from Jongbloed is limp and certainly has the mechanics to open flat. But when you’re near the front or back, the weight of the pages makes it a little bit tricky, and there’s a heavily-reinforced tab on either side of the book, too.


I’ve never rhapsodized about a concordance before, but the Quentel’s concordance is simply beautiful. It would look good in a frame on the wall. Here the use of red accents, rather than traditional, comes off as very modern (in the best sense).



For Bible design fanatics, the Quentel’s main selling point has to be the 45gsm paper. For a couple of years, publishers have been pushing the threshold on paper in response to reader concerns about opacity and “ghosting” — that five o’clock shadow that comes from the print on the back of the page showing through to the front. My beloved Clarion’s paper is 27gsm. To minimize ghosting Cambridge uses line-matching, the theory being that if the lines of print on either side of the page match, the five o’clock shadow is reduced. When the lines do match, you can see the desired effect. My Clarion, from the first edition, has a few spots where the lines are off.

The Quentel also uses line-matching while going where no man has gone before — into the 40s, that is. Past Schuyler editions have used 32gsm paper, while the ESV Study Bible and Crossway’s current Thinline, Personal Reference, and Large Print Thinline use 30gsm. The Crossway Legacy, printed in Italy by LEGO, uses 36gsm Thincoat Plus, which has proven very popular. But as far as I know, no one has broken into the 40s before. Flipping through sample books, it’s always seemed to me that in the 40s is where you’d start seeing real improvements in terms of opacity. Don’t expect miracles, though. Tomoe River paper, which I’ve written about before, is considered very thin by fountain pen enthusiasts, and it’s 52gsm.

The Quentel is not free of ghosting. As you can see in the photos, show-through remains visible. However, thicker paper makes a noticeable difference. Here’s a side-by-side comparison:


For the photo above, I snapped pictures of the Quentel, the Legacy, and the Clarion under the same lighting and in roughly the same position. I’m not an expert on paper, but Cambridge’s Bob Groser is. He told me there’s about a 2.5% difference in opacity between the Clarion’s 27gsm paper and the 32gsm stock used on earlier Schuylers (which is one of Jongbloed’s favorite papers for Bible printing these days, I’m told). I don’t have opacity percentages for the Legacy’s Thincoat Plus or the Quentel’s 45gsm paper, but eyeballing the editions, I think a stair-step of several percentage points is probably right. Even 45gsm paper is still thin, so the gains are marginal — but they are definitely visible. In some light, the contrast is stark.

[Update: Thanks to Andreas Krautwald, I can share the precise specs of the Quentel's paper. It's printed on Bolloré Primapage 45 gsm, which has an ISO opactity rating of 84%, ISO brightness of 87.5% and a bulk of 1,17 cm^3/g. From Bob Groser's numbers I know that the Clarion's Indolux 27gsm paper has an opacity rating of 79.5% and the Primabible 32gsm I mentioned above is rated at 81.5%. This gives a more accurate sense of the incremental gains I speculated on in the previous paragraph. Of course, there are a variety of factors at work in how we perceive opacity, including brightness and print impression.]

There’s a trade-off, though: thickness. As you see below, the Quentel’s thicker paper makes the book much thicker than either the Clarion or the Legacy. Is the extra 2.5-5% opacity worth the extra bulk? Maybe not if portability is your highest priority. If that’s your goal, though, you probably aren’t in the market for a Bible with 11-point type.



The Quentel binding features the edge-lined cover with stitching around the perimeter than Jongbloed has made its staple ever since the release of the Cambridge wide margins a number of years ago. This one is leather-lined, though — in the case of my Firebrick Red review copy, the lining is a dark plum color. The Schuyler logo is blind embossed on the cover, with a gilded version is on the spine. The book’s edges are art-gilt, and there are four thick ribbons (red in this case).




In front of the Quentel, there are several pages with a thick decorative border designed for hand inscription. The pattern is pretty wild, channeling an Arts and Crafts vibe.





While I haven’t spent much time looking at Bible maps since childhood, when they got me through many a boring sermon, the ones in back of the Quentel are quite nice. If you get tired of looking at the concordance, you can brush up on Holy Land geography.


As I mentioned, the Quentel cover is strongly reinforced, which this book block probably requires. That means that while the cover is capable of limp Bible yoga moves, the hinges get in the way. When the Quentel is in your hands, you probably won’t get the urge to bend it back on itself. Just to prove you could, though, I offer a little photographic proof:



The Quentel is my favorite Schuyler offering to date. I don’t use the NASB much, and I prefer short-and-thick Bibles to big-and-thick ones. Having said that, I admire the Quentel for what it represents. Ever since began its publishing journey by launching the Schuyler imprint, they’ve been doing for Bible publishing what they did before for retailing: listening to the community and trying to give people what they want. The two biggest complaints I hear from average readers who get in touch via Bible Design Blog are that the print in their Bibles is too small, and the paper is not opaque enough. The reason for both problems is that publishers are betting readers prefer small and thin to big and thick, even if small and thin means too small to read and paper that’s practically see-through. This is the traditional wisdom in the industry, and it’s hard to swim against that tide. The Quentel does just that.


In the photograph above, you see the two best options for NASB reference editions known to me. The Clarion (right) isn’t thin except in comparison to the Quentel, but it is hand-sized, about the same footprint as a small trade paperback. When the line-matching is dead-on, the 27gsm paper is a livable compromise. Some people disagree, but I grab the Clarion more than any other reference edition … and I have a few to choose from. If you go with the Clarion NASB, you get a well-designed, relatively small, handy Bible printed and bound by Jongbloed. Assuming the level of show-through is acceptable to you, and the type isn’t too small for your eyes, you’re good to go.

The Quentel is also well-designed and printed and bound by Jongbloed, but it bumps the type size and the opacity up considerably. If you struggle with smaller type or find your sensitivity to five o’clock shadows growing, I think you’re going to love the Quentel.


One of the hardest decisions for me was choosing which color Quentel to review. The Firebrick Red is a great color, quite vibrant in certain light, and in others more subdued. An elegant scarlet color with a hint of a purple undertone. It’s also available in black, dark brown, and imperial blue. The blue tempted me, but just a leopard doesn’t change its spots, my hardwired preference for red (or, when available, tan) won out. There’s something beautiful about that shade. Perhaps I should have been a cardinal instead of a writer. Too late now.


For more information about the Quentel Series, including Schuyler’s plans for future releases of other translations, be sure to check out the Schuyler Bibles site. The ESV, NKJV, and KJV are all slated for Quentel treatment, meaning the Quentel will be Schuyler’s first “standard” edition. I’m happy to see them taking this approach, which is similar to what Cambridge has been doing with the Clarion, the Pitt Minion, and the Wide Margin. It’s always frustrating to see a format you like and discover it’s unavailable in the translation you need.





Bible Yoga in the San Francisco Chronicle, Circa 1917

SF Chronicle (Dec. 1917)It’s no secret I didn’t invent Bible yoga, the trick of bending leather covers (never the spine!) to demonstrate flexibility. I’ve already documented Cambridge’s use of a similar practice back in the 1980s. Thanks to reader Tim Stewart we can move the date back considerably. He came across the advertisement above in a December 1917 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle. A century ago you could have purchased “the best Bible ever made” from that august publication, for the princely sum of $1.78. Personally, I’m skeptical that the diacritical marks of this self-pronouncing edition made difficult words “so simple a child can pronounce them.” Those must have been some interesting children.


A Visit to R. L. Allan

When I discovered that my friend Alan Cornett would be in London this month, an idea came to me: why not ask him to drop in on the new headquarters of R. L. Allan with camera in hand? Alan and I share a lot of interests, and his blog Pinstripe Pulpit is not to be missed. He embraced the notion and took time out of his schedule to sit down with Ian Metcalfe, the new director of R. L. Allan. Below is his report. Thank you, Alan! — JMB

Ian Metcalfe

Ian Metcalfe, pictured in the R. L. Allan warehouse

Who would have imagined in the age of iPads and bonded leather a Bible publisher specializing in deluxe bindings would see growth that doubled its size over the past decade? But R.L. Allan Bibles cannot keep its ESV editions in stock because of intense demand. New owner Ian Metcalfe sees a bright future for the 150 year old company.


The original R. L. Allan store in Glasgow, downstairs from the Cranston’s Tea Room.


The warehouse today.

While the King James Longprimer is still Allan’s bread and butter, it is “the Internet and the ESV that have driven our growth,” Ian told me over coffee and M&S flapjack bites in his Tolworth warehouse. The space is neat and clean, freshly stocked with boxes shipped from the old Allan headquarters in Glasgow. Every Allan’s customer loves the trademark blue box. Being surrounded with stacks of them will make you downright giddy.



Inside the Longprimer


The Longprimer (bottom) compared to the Brevier Blackface (top).

Ian Metcalfe is the nephew of former Allan’s owner Nicholas Gray, taking over the enterprise along with his wife Dominique on November 27, 2013. Gray still consults, and visits with Metcalfe monthly, but Ian brings extensive Bible publishing experience himself. Formerly at HarperCollins, and now Publishing Director at Hodder & Stoughton, he was instrumental in bringing a number of translations to the UK public. In his job with major Bible publishers, he has even sold unbound printed sheets to R.L. Allan over the years. Allan’s NIV Versa type edition actually was set by Ian in his day job.

The US is the biggest driver of Allan’s sales with 70% of its Bibles going to the States. Only 15% stay in the UK. Despite its wide popularity, NIV editions make up only a small portion of Allan’s sales. “NIV readers are not as interested in the physical book,” Ian observed.


Allan Classic Reference NIV


Page spread from the Allan Classic Reference NIV

Ian explained that the large Bible publishers, many of them suppliers of unbound sheets to R.L. Allan, are happy about Allan’s existence. With Allan’s filling the high end Bible niche, the big boys don’t feel the pressure to offer fine editions in every color. At the same time, Allan’s has shown there is a real demand for quality Bibles, which has lead to a revived interest in producing for the high end market from some larger houses. Ian was complimentary of Cambridge’s work, and also of Crossway. Despite its short time as a Bible publisher, and its non-profit status, he admired Crossway’s aggressiveness in reacting to the market and producing quality Bibles.

The perennial production challenge for R.L. Allan is binding. Ian explained that meeting the printing demand is never a problem, but the handmade nature of their bindings means there are only so many Bibles that can be bound. Allan’s lovely art-gilt edges, for example, can only be done by two firms in the UK. He constantly is exploring additional options that meet the standards Allan’s has set.


Allan New Classic Readers ESV in tan, marine blue, brown, and black highland goatskin.


Inside the New Readers Reference ESV.

Ian is well aware of the constant push for opaque paper, and we joked about the mythical thinline with completely opaque paper Bible. He also brought up the concern for proper text line matching, something he said he is “passionate” about, but also mentioned unique challenges like the possible distraction of line matching with verse.

During the course of our conversation Ian shared some thoughts about the gender inclusive language translation debate. “It’s not gender inclusivity,” Ian said, “but gender accuracy.” That is, translators are trying to capture the intent of the text, not bending to a social agenda. While the NIV 2011 has received most of the press over the issue, “the existence of the ESV opened the way for the NIV 2011. The ESV showed gender inclusive could be done.” The market would accept gender inclusive language after all.

In the future R.L. Allan wants to maintain its classic editions backlist while exploring new options. Ian indicated a particular desire to expand the Longprimer format into different translations, and showed me the newly restocked KJV Longprimer colors. The NLT edition is scheduled for release in February.


Cruden’s Complete Concordance


Hymns Old and New

I didn’t want to leave the warehouse empty handed, and hinted about buying one of Allan’s website password protected hymnals for my wife. Ian politely declined to sell me one. I did end up with a red Allan’s journal, which includes the challenge of finding something profound enough to write in such a gorgeous blank canvas.

R.L. Allan has survived for a century and a half. With Ian and Dominique at the helm, Allan’s seems to be in good hands for another generation.

The Perfect Format

There Can Be Only One: Grail quests and the lessons of discontentment

Friday, April 18, 2014

My friend Alan Cornett of Pinstripe Pulpit fame lets his light shine in several venues (including this one). He wrote recently about the metaphorical “grail quest” familiar to…

First Look: Crossway’s ESV Reader’s Bible

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The most interesting of the Bibles slated for release by Crossway in 2014 has to be the ESV Reader’s Bible, which features one of the purest, most uncluttered…

Short and Stout: Ideal Form Factor for Single Column Settings?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Certain ratios just seem to work. No doubt there's a mathematic expression of the principle, a variation of some kind on the golden mean, but numbers were never…

Page vs. Book

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Approaching the Bible as a design project, you confront a central tension between the needs of the page and the needs of the book. When you open your…