"Maybe you should try the Long Primer." I'd given that advice a thousand times to people who e-mailed looking for a nice, readable edition of the KJV in a quality binding. I said maybe because I'd never seen one myself. Based on what I knew of R. L. Allan's, I assumed the Long Primer was good. Nicholas Gray, who presides over the Glasgow-based temple of goodness, confided that the Long Primer was his favorite setting of the KJV, and other Bible Design Blog readers said the same thing. So when the box arrived from Scotland including, among other things, a copy of Item #53 -- "Allan's Oxford Reference Bible, Long Primer with Chain References, Goatskin Leather, Cyclopedic Concordance" -- I was anxious to see if the recommendation I'd been making was any good.
Not that I was worried.
Above: The supple Long Primer cover inspired some new Bible yoga positions. Here, the cover is curled into the gutter between the pages, showing off the goatskin's flexibility and grain, and providing a glimpse of the elegant typography within.
The official description has this to say: "Highland goatskin with overlapping (full yapp) covers, leather lined inside in dark blue, with dictionary of proper names, subject index and concordance." The list price is £90, which works out to $177 in today's US dollars. That's expensive, but then, this is a once-in-a-lifetime purchase for all but the inveterate collectors. And I have to say, the Long Primer has that once-in-a-lifetime feel.
Although the text block measures 8.5 x 5.75 x 1.125, the full yapp cover gives the Long Primer a larger footrpint, something like 9.5 x 6.5, making it a large, relatively thin, comfortable edition. One of the selling points on the Allan's site is its "large, readable type size," and this is no exaggeration. The typeface is classic without looking dated, and while I'm always hesitant to estimate font size, I would guess it's in the region of 11-12 pt. Like all classic settings of the KJV, this features a double-column, verse-per-line format, but the paragraph markers are particularly prominent, which helps. Also, the Long Primer has a much less aggressive approach to self-pronouncing text than the Brevier Blackface. The names of Assyrian kings are likely to be broken into accented syllables, but familiar names like Jesus and Peter are not.
In addition to the chain references, the Long Primer offers an impressive amount of reference material in back, starting with a dictionary of proper names. So if you're sitting in a church service and find you can't recall who Abishai was, just look him up and you'll find the following:
ABISHAI, a-bi-shai, f. of a gift. I Sam. 26.6. brother of Joab. I Chr. 2.16. with David carries off Saul's spear. I Sam. 26. 6-9. slays three hundred men. 2 Sam. 23. 18, See also 1 Chr. 11.20; 18.12.
I hate to confess how much time I've spent looking people up. There are plenty of traditional reference tools that get little to no use (and are not much missed as a consequence), but this is one I'd love to see revived, because it's just the sort of thing you need when your knowledge of the biblical cast of characters -- especially the obscure ones -- fails you. In addition to the dictionary of proper names, there's a thorough subject index, a concordance, and a set of Oxford maps. For true KJV enthusiasts, I should point out that like most editions, this one includes the Epistle Dedicatory but not "The Translators to the Reader."
Below: Another yoga move. This time one cover is curled into the gutter while the other wraps around. Try that with most leather Bibles and you'll end up with bent, even creased, covers, but the highland goatskin is unmarked.
The Long Primer is a "black letter" edition, meaning the words of Christ are not printed in red (or, as is too often the case in modern editions, pink). Red letter editions are traditional here in the States, and some people swear by them. Others are just as passionate in the opposite direction, worrying that the use of red letters implies that some parts of the Bible are more reliable, more inspired than others. If you fall into the former camp, be warned that the Long Primer is not a red letter edition.
Another concern with red letter editions, especially considering how inconsistent the color is in so many editions, is that the text is harder to read. I've written at length about readability, so I'd be remiss in not pointing out that the Long Primer, as a very traditional setting of the traditional translation in English, violates pretty much all my preferences. It's set in two columns, not one. The text isn't paragraphed. The verse isn't set in verses. I could go on. But the Long Primer illustrates another principle, something that can easily be lost in a conversation about ideals. When the design choices, whatever they happen to be, are well executed, they tend to minimize distraction. Compared to the Brevier Blackface, another double column, verse-per-line setting, the Long Primer is exceptionally readable -- and not just because of the increased font size. I'm not sure I can express the difference well, but it has something to do with how cleanly executed the design is. The font choice is excellent, the size is right, the proportions are balanced, the elements just seem to work together.
The point is, a well-executed double-column, verse-per-line layout might actually be better to read than a poorly-executed single-column, paragraphed layout. Single columns and paragraphs are not a panacea. The designer has to make good choices at every point. The designers of the Long Primer by and large have.
Below: Red under gold page edges appear red from one angle and gilt from another. People have noted a ridgeline "wave" in the pages of some Allan's editions, and you can see a bit of that here. I consider it more of a characteristic than a defect, but I realize there are different opinions on this.
This sounds like a love-fest, and for good reason. There is a lot to love about the Long Primer. Still, this particular version is really a love-it-or-hate-it proposition, and that's because of the full yapp edges. A semi-yapp edge overlaps the page roughly halfway, giving you a nice extended edge, a leather clamshell that offers some protection to the text block. But a full-yapp edge goes all the way. The leather actually touches all around the edge.
The result is a cover that looks, for lack of a better term, organic. It's not neat and trim. Instead, it can look a little pinched and asymmetrical. You're either going to love this effect or hate it. I happen to love it.
Below: Another view of the full-yapp edge. As you can see, my copy is a little puckered at the four corners. I could try straightening this out for a more regular line, but I happen to like the organic effect.
You will not not notice the full-yapp edge. So take stock before ordering a copy. Considering how rare this feature is today, that alone might make it worth your while. If you're wondering, the full-yapp edge doesn't interfere much when you're flipping through the pages. It might take some getting used to, but I wouldn't let that put you off.
Another minor gripe: the Long Primer only comes with a single ribbon, and it's rather short. When I use a ribbon to mark my place, I typically open to the passage by grasping the tip of the ribbon and pulling it sideways to lift the page open. As I move the Long Primer ribbon toward the lower outside corner, I'm left with about .125 inches of fabric to hold onto. I usually feel that ribbons run on the long side, but in this case it's just a bit too short.
My conclusion? The advice I'd given second-hand rang true once I had the opportunity to use the Long Primer myself. It's a beautifully produced edition of the KJV, one of the best I've ever handled, and while it might not be for everyone, it offers an excellent balance of traditional features, readability, and quality manufacture. It is the best of the Oxford settings available from R. L. Allan's, which is the only source of these editions now that Oxford has dropped them. So if you want a copy of the famous Authorized Version in classic form, my recommendation is the same as before: "You should try the Long Primer."
Only I'm dropping the maybe.