Page vs. Book

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 Bible, you see the page — or to be more precise, you see a page spread, two facing sheets. As a reader, you experience the text one page spread at a time. Between them, a designer and production manager and can make certain choices to enhance that experience: a legible and reasonably-sized typeface, elegant proportions, generous margins and line spacing, even dense, opaque paper. Distractions can be minimized or eliminated. The end result is a page that doesn’t call attention to itself, serving as the proverbial windowpane.

But some of these choices will impact the overall book. A generous, reader-friendly type size and balanced margins might make the page work best, but they also add bulk to the overall volume, requiring more pages to contain the words. That means the resulting Bible will be bigger, but also more expensive — both of which make it less attractive to today’s consumer, who seems to prefer things inexpensive and insubstantial. Thus the tension. Do I privilege the page over the book, or the book over the page? Do I design for the reader, or for the consumer?

In reality, you have to do both, and that’s why instead of “perfect” Bibles we have a variety of compromise measures. Smaller type and thinner (nowadays cheaper) paper equal a portable format, and readers must learn to cope with the inconvenience, some managing better than others.

In an ideal world, the page spread would trump the overall book every time. But this is a fallen world, so perfectionists are always going to be dissatisfied.

I see two signs of hope on the horizon. The first, of course, is the digital book, which eliminates the physical considerations of the “book” entirely. As I’ve written before, my daily go-everywhere Bible is on my phone along with a bunch of other stuff. The bulk is nominal at best. But so far, digital books are a disappointment to me, because while eliminating one side of the design tension, they don’t yet offer full control over the other. The page isn’t what it should be, even though it isn’t constrained by the overall book. I expect this to change, but for now it’s one of the reasons I prefer a “real” Bible to a digital one.

The second sign of hope? Unconventional thinkers like the folks at IBS behind the Books of the Bible project. You may not agree with every choice made, but they showed a willingness to privilege the page over the book. They didn’t entirely escape the tension, but they approached the design problem from the reader’s point of view, not the consumer’s, and the more that happens, the better.

If I had to guess, I’d say inertia plays a big part in Bible design. Yesterday’s compromises become today’s expectations. Before long, if you don’t set tiny rows of text in double columns with references running down the middle on bad, crinkly, five-o’clock-shadow paper with cheap gilding and a stiff pseudo-leather cover, people won’t be able to tell it’s a Bible at all. So an important part of the design process — asking questions about how the text should be encountered — can be entirely skipped over, the assumption being there are no solutions other than the ones that have already been tried.

There is, however, a small tradition of dissent. You see it not just in the Books of the Bible, but in The Message and in earlier formats like the single column NEB and in outreach New Testaments, and even the Personal Size Reference ESV — anywhere the reader has been allowed to matter more than the consumer, the page more than the book. The NEB is the best for my money, the touchstone I wish more people were looking back at, but really none of these efforts is perfect. They still have to compromise. But for the most part, they tilt in the right direction, whereas too often the larger tradition points the other way.

5 Comments on “Page vs. Book

  1. For my money, the best page layout of any Bible I own is the RSV Brevier Reference Edition in the now out-of-print single-column study version (as originally prepared by Harold Lindsell). It has variously appeared as the Eyre and Spottiswoode Study Bible, but was then taken over by Cambridge. More recently, it has been published as the Harper Study Bible (in RSV, now as NRSV, updated by Verlyn Verbrugge, but in hardback only).
    I have both a hardback Eyre and Sottiswoode copy and a French Morocco leather Cambridge version.
    The study notes are miminal compared with some contemporary monsters, there is a decent concordance and useful cross headings. The text is single column (about 12 words per line – Mark Bertrand’s ideal) with cross-references in the outer margin. Concordance and Cross-references are the same as those in the Cambridge Brevier Reference RSV, still available in a very portable format, but double column.
    I would also give a thumbs up to the ESV Personal Reference Edition. The line length is a few words too long, but I like the straightfoward page layout, single column setting and inner-margin cross-references. If only it had a half-decent concordance!

  2. My perfect Bible would have about an 11-12pt font, red-letter, bold print, center column reference, nice thicker opaque paper, leather-lined, three silk ribbons, each in KJV, ESV and NASB. Of course they would all have to be goatskin in browns, tans and perhaps blue. As Mark pointed out, it’s difficult to realize that perfect Bible in today’s world. Really, and I’m not kidding, I’m not asking for that much.

  3. Mark you’re right (again) about the recession in quality. I just returned from a visit to a brand new Super-Outlet Branch of a well known chain of Christian Bookstores here in Australia that opened up just down the road from (lucky me). Obviously all the stock was brand spanking new but sadly there were only a few genuine leather editions available in the Bible section (and they were well camouflaged amonsgt the new breed of cheap & nasties). It seems everything new is either bonded, fake, tru-tone or a sibling of tru-tone.
    On a more positive note I did notice that there are more single column editions being made available in a variety of Translations which is encouraging to those like-minded souls that frequent this site. Personally I think that the reviews & comments here are making in-roads to the thinking of publishers – it would be just great to see them go the “extra mile” as Mark mentioned & return to yesteryears standards of quality. Thank goodness we (perfectionists, I know I am at least) still have the likes of Cambridge and Allan’s to put a smile on our face(s)! Though I’m thinking this “global financial crisis” may wipe a smirk or two off a few, so hang onto the WORD – no matter how good or pathetically bound it may be!

  4. You are so right on.
    And if anyone has not had a chance to enjoy the readability of the layout of an old NEB NT, by all means don’t pick one up at the thrift store and read it unless you want to be totally depressed at the layout of every other Bible you own. I just wish I could have the whole Bible in exactly the same proportions.

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