Why Paragraphs? Why Single Column?
It never hurts to restate one’s first principles, especially when new readers come along who don’t know what all the fuss is about. Why is it better for the text of Scripture to be set in paragraphs instead of the traditional verse-per-line format? Why is a single column setting preferable to the much-more-common double-column arrangement? Does any of this really make a difference? For most of us, the meaty, controversial topic where Scripture is concerned is translation. How the words end up on the page is a matter of indifference. It seems trivial to lock horns over mere formatting when we could be grappling over Hebrew and Greek, or sparring about which English words in which combination are comprehensible to which English speakers. I understand. I find all that stuff fascinating, too. But there’s something to be said for matters usually dismissed as superficial.
If you don’t mind, I’ll begin with a story. As a writer, I’ve been known to frequent what’s called a “workshop.” This is a regular get-together at a coffee shop or some other plausible venue, in which a group of authors trade photocopies of their work for purposes of critique. These manuscripts have never been eyeballed by an editor, so their formatting depends entirely on the author — and these days, technology being what it is, a lot of manuscripts are passed back and forth electronically, losing formatting as they go. At one meeting, a writer passed out a stack of pages for discussion at the next meeting. I took them home and read them a few days later. To me, it looked like a rather long prose poem. Lines ended randomly but often in interesting ways, some paragraphs had extra space in between, while others were jammed up against each other. I wrestled with some of the stranger line endings, and giving the author the benefit of the doubt, assumed he’d undertaken something extremely subtle, something I couldn’t quite figure out. But I tried, and eventually came up with a few pages of notes.
When we met, the first thing he did was apologize for the formatting. His short story (!) had been e-mailed back and forth, breaking the lines in odd places and adding lots of mysterious spacing he couldn’t account for. Most of my commentary was based on the assumption that I was reading poetry. By re-formatting the lines, things became clear. The piece wasn’t as difficult as I’d thought, but it wasn’t as clever, either. I read it, yes, but I read into it, too. All because of a glitch in formatting.
Now, consider the way Bibles have traditionally been designed. Because of the amount of text involved, the type is often small, and so typographers lay it out in two columns. Once verse numbers were added in the sixteenth century to make it easier to find specific passages, it made sense to begin each new paragraph with a verse number to make it that much simpler. Scholars came along and added notes, so a center column emerged, and some very helpful people concerned with proper pronunciation started breaking individual words into their constituent syllables and accenting as needed. As a result, some Bibles look a little bit like people who’ve had too much plastic surgery done. It takes some effort to see past the surface.
It wouldn’t be such a big deal if all books looked like this. We’d be used to it and we’d know how to read them. But most books are set in single columns with a paragraphed text, and the designers tend to avoid anything that gets in the way of the reading experience. As a result, the Bible looks very different to modern eyes than the sort of books we’re used to reading.
English translators often share a form of this concern. They want their work to be phrased in language the reader can comprehend, devoid of forsooths. How ironic, then, that so many recent translations, meant to read like other books, don’t look like them.
As many of you know, I grew up with the King James Version. I’m grateful. When I was in grad school, I didn’t need an interpreter to explain seventeenth century prose. But believe me, I sat through more than a few sermons based on a misunderstanding of the archaic text. The language had changed, but the speaker didn’t realize it. That’s the kind of mishap folks who didn’t grow up with the KJV like to smile at — but unfortunately, archaic diction isn’t the only way to misread a sentence.
Here’s another: study a phrase in isolation. The traditional verse-per-line format actually promotes the practice, since it divides sentences into phrases wherever a verse number interrupts. By heightening the emphasis on isolated phrases, the sentences that actually carry the full thought are de-emphasized. And don’t get me started on the paragraphs. Anyone who has studied the Bible at the verse level only to switch to the paragraph level can tell you it’s a very different experience. The question you have to ask is, how was it meant to be read? I can build a topical sermon based on a series of phrases pulled from various parts of the Bible, but if my thought process is unsupported by any particular passage in Scripture — i.e., if I end up arguing points never argued by any biblical authors — is the result really accurate?
The reason why paragraphed texts are important, and why single column settings should be more widely available, is that they both encourage the proper way of reading the Bible. Rather than treating it like a pithy, cryptic phrasebook, these formatting options suggest contextual reading that focuses on the ideas behind the words rather than free-association based on a word here or there.
Far be it from me to argue that nothing but formatting matters. But formatting does matter. In the same way that a translator, to do good work, needs to consider both the source language and the one the audience speaks, a Bible designer has to do more than fit words on the page or figure out how to distinguish cross references from verse numbers. The designer has to think about the reading experience and avoid choices that might channel it into counterproductive paths. Sadly, other considerations have often predominated. As a result, it’s easy to find a Bible that looks like a dictionary — book for looking things up — and hard to find one that looks like it’s meant for reading.
I don’t want to eliminate double-column settings or even verse-per-line formatting. All I’m after is more good options. Now that’s not too much to ask.