R. L. Allan’s Oxford Long Primer in Highland Goatskin
It’s appeared several photos. I’ve mentioned it a time or two. But until now, I’ve never posted my thoughts on the Oxford Brevier Blackface Reference Edition from R. L. Allan. This is quite an omission, considering the Brevier Blackface was the first Bible I ever purchased from R. L. Allan, the beginning of the affair, so to speak. So why the long silence? It’s one of those love/hate situations. If you think of this edition as the child of Allan’s and Oxford, I love what Allan’s contributed to the gene pool and feel pretty ambivalent about the Oxford chromosome. It all comes down to one little word: blackface. Whether you love or hate this edition depends entirely on how dark you like your text. If you don’t like cream in your coffee or moon in your night, the Brevier Blackface might be the ticket. For everyone else, I recommend the Longprimer.
First, let me explain why I chose Oxford over Cambridge. R. L. Allan offers its own editions from both publishers, and there are actually more options to choose from on the Cambridge side of the equation. The Oxford settings of the KJV tend to look a bit antiquated, as well, both because of the font and the self-pronouncing feature, which might be nice when reading aloud, but doesn’t do the intelligibility of the page any favors. Still, I chose an Oxford edition for variety’s sake. By the time I discovered Allan’s, I already had a shelf full of Cambridge KJVs!
THE ALLAN’S GENE
When the Brevier Blackface arrived, I held it in my hands and immediately swore off all those Cambridge calfskins. What had I been thinking? How had I ever considered those things nice, or even adequate. In a world where such covers and bindings existed, what excuse could there be for anything else? Yes, it was an extreme reaction, but consider the context. For years I’d been on this hit-or-miss journey. I wanted to be a one-Bible-guy, but there was always some reason that the edition at hand couldn’t be the One. When I opened that blue box, unwrapped the paper strips binding the Brevier Blackface, and got my first look at the form, my first sniff of the scent, my first touch of the goatskin, I was ecstatic. If I’d been a Victorian heroine, I’d have promptly swooned.
The cover is flexible. The binding is sewn. The overall impression is one of refinement. And for the first time, I had a Bible that opened flat straight from the box and felt great in the hand. This was also my first taste of full yapp edges, the extended leather edges that overlap the pages, protecting the gilt while making it marginally more difficult to flip around from passage to passage.
Of all the Bibles I’ve featured here, this one was particularly difficult to photograph. The pebble grain is tight, the surface glossy without a hint of cheap shine. When I snapped the pictures, though, they never quite reflect what I see with my eyes. The box is marked “RL Allan 20,” which by today’s listing indicates a highland goatskin cover, but mine is stamped “Cape Levant Morocco” inside, which seems to correspond to today’s #26. Mine also says “Oxford Binding” on the inside back cover.
I find the size of this edition particularly handy. It measures 7 and 1/8 by 4 and 3/4, just over an inch wide. As a result, it occupies an intermediate place between truly compact pocket editions and full-size references. To me, this form factor is near the sweet spot for a “carrying” Bible, the kind you tote to church — small enough not to be an encumbrance, but large enough to be easily read and contain notes and references. In fact, this edition includes a Cyclopedic Concordance packed with all sorts of information — various photos, a genealogical chart of the patriarchs, and index of Old Testament quotations in the New Testament, maps, and much more. Some people find this sort of thing essential. I always imagine people busying themselves with the back matter forty-five minutes into a ninety-minute sermon.
In the photos, you’ll note an imperfection that’s sometimes seen on Cambridge Bibles, too. The page edges are a little wavy — in fact, if you run a fingertip along the top or bottom, you can feel the ripple. My first Cambridge Bible, a wide-margin in Berkshire leather, had the same ‘feature,’ only it resembled a troubled ocean and always made me think, “Surf’s up!” Does it bother me? No. Your mileage may vary.
THE OXFORD GENE
What does bother me, though, is just how black the blackface type is. It’s downright Gothic black, reminiscent of old German type, so black that if I go outside on a clear day and open it up, astronauts in orbit can read over my shoulder. Now if you’re one of those people who thinks the problem with Bibles today is the print’s too small and too narrow, and they don’t use enough ink on the page, you’re going to love this thing. To me, it’s like reading page after page of text highlighted in bold, or maybe all-caps.
I have only myself to blame. This edition is clearly labeled “blackface,” and the accompanying text samples live up to the name. But I’d never had any experience with an edition like this before so I didn’t realize how hard it would be to read. Perhaps the darkness alone isn’t the issue — it’s the perfect storm of blackface type, an old-fashioned font, and the self-pronouncing feature that invariably renders Jesus as Je’-sus (only with different accents over the e, s, and u so that each is voiced correctly). When I think that someone had to go through the entire Bible spelling all the proper names phonetically, I get a headache. Just think: in the old days, they’d go to that amount of trouble, whereas now you have to whine for years on end to get a simple single-column text setting!
In the final analysis, you’ll either love it or hate it. An old school traditionalist with iffy eyesight will find the Brevier Blackface the ultimate reference work. For everyday use, it’s a bit much if you ask me. It’s a shame, though, because the size is excellent and the binding bespeaks quality, old school tradition in the best sense. If you’re looking at R. L. Allan and you want a KJV, this wouldn’t be my first recommendation. Still, I can’t say I regret buying it. Picky as I am, I still break it out from time to time … and enjoy.