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

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 my strong point. All I know is, when it comes to books, some proportions just feel right. While there's no single ideal, if you ask me, we can identify combinations of height, width, and thickness that function beautifully. 

Large thinline Bibles are a good example. If it's wide enough and thin enough, something magical seems to happen. Opening it up, turning the pages, letting it hang limp from your hand, there's a mild aesthetic joy in the nuances of handling. 

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Above: The Oxford combined NRSV with Apocrypha and 1979 Book of Common Prayer (top) may not look sleek and elegant in comparison to the ESV portfolio thinline (below), but believe me, the proportions work.

And I would argue the same thing is true with the small, fat Bible, too. While it may not look elegant in comparison to its sleek companion, trust me, it's wonderful. A thick Bible does what a slender one can't: it fills the hand. Now if that thick Bible is also tall and wide, the mammoth-like result, while impressive to the eye, won't be nearly so pleasing in the hand. It's the added thickness in the small package that makes the difference.
In the photos, I'm cheating, because my example isn't just a Bible. It's an NRSV with Apocrypha. As if that's not enough, it also has the 1979 Book of Common Prayer inside. This thing is not just carrying a few extra pounds — it's chubby in the extreme. But I have to cheat to make my point. We tend to think of a Bible's thickness as a negative. When the footprint is small, though, it becomes an advantage, especially if the Bible is very thick. In this case, the measurements are roughly 6.25" x 4.75" x 2".

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Above: Say hello to my little friend.
The Oxford suffers a little from trying to do too much. As far as the daily office is concerned, having the complete text of Scripture under the same cover is convenient, but in practice the type is rather small, and of course it's set in double columns — because double column setting allows smaller type. A single column setting, to be readable, requires a minimum type size and an optimal column width of around twelve words, give or take.
Back in October 2007, I suggested the size of this combined NRSV/BCP represented an ideal for a future single column text setting. I still believe that. To my eyes, this doesn't work:
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But this does:
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If instead of a combined NRSV with Apocrypha and BCP, this was a single column text setting of the Bible sans Apocrypha, I think the proportions would end up more or less the same, and you'd have a very readable end result, probably the perfect "reader's edition." Just to give you an idea, here's how much of the book is dedicated to the BCP, and how much to the Bible:
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Assuming its true that form follows function, this form seems ideal for the single column text function, because it allows for a handy format, an appropriate type size, and the right column width (so the small text isn't stretched across a too-wide page). It's no accident that the most iconic of the contemporary single column settings, the Message Remix hardback, has similar proportions — albeit a bit larger (and thinner).
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Above: Smaller and thicker than the Message Remix hardback, the NRSV/BCP form factor strikes me as ideal for a no-nonsense single column text setting.
Short and stout — not exactly the idyllic proportion, in most people's minds. But I'm here to tell you that it works. While I wouldn't insist on every edition adopting this form factor (or any other, for that matter), I think it would be a good idea for designers and publishers looking for a way to create aesthetically pleasing and practical single column settings to take a closer look at this package. It just might do the trick.

35 Comments on “Short and Stout: Ideal Form Factor for Single Column Settings?

  1. “…numbers were never my strong point.”
    Strange that you should mention that, since I have come to the conclusion that concealed within your person is a frustrated engineer. This has been confirmed during my reading of “(Re)Thinking Worldview” as I have noticed your precision and analytical approach.
    I have had your book on the shelf for about a year now, and have finally knocked the reading list down to the point where it is in my hand at present. I am wishing that I opened it earlier.

  2. I am a fan of the short and stout. I have an oxford pocket NRSV that is perfect. The large thinline is nice (my favorite is Zondervans Reader Edition Greek text for size), but the little guys are so easy to carry and hold.

  3. I have the NA26 Greek-English New Testament (http://www.bibles.com/products/ABS_NEW/112846.aspx) and it works for me for that exact reason. The dimensions are perfect for the hand. It’s my preferred Bible whenever I’m preaching or teaching without the benefit of a pulpit or lectern. It’s comfortable in the hand, even for up to an hour.

  4. Hey there, just ran across this blog. I am looking for an NASB bible with calfskin binding, or any binding that is just very flexible. The thing is i would prefer a single column format, and would love it to stay relatively thin (less than 1.5 inches). Any thoughts?

  5. Since having a few bibles which are single column I don’t want to ever go back. Problem is, so few bibles are single column. I am spoiled on the ease of reading found in something like a God’s Word translation. But I am looking for a more literal single column edition that is well made. It’s not that one can’t do a serious translation in single column and have the layout work. The translation called TransLine had the bright idea of having the biblical text on the left page and the notes on the right, but it is NT only. Does anyone know of a quality printing of a NASB, ESV or equivalent, which is in single column?

  6. Nate…Go to americanbiblesales.com. They have a single column NASB bible in calfskin 6x9x1 3/4 in $80.00 range and I believe they’re pretty good bibles.

  7. I have two editions of the Oxford NRSV/BCP combo and they are quite different.
    Unlike the newer edition, (the one shown here with tiny type), the text of the Bible in the older edition has a different typeface that is more open, much easier to read, and perhaps a bit larger without adding extra heft to the book.
    Also, in the newer edition the BCP typeface appears to be Garamond while the older edition uses Sabon. The difference in those two typefaces has to be the reason for the expression, “Close but no cigar.”
    Add to that the six ribbon markers in the older edition and the calfskin binding and it happily serves as my daily Bible.

    • Mark, do you have the ISBNs for those older BCP/NRSVs, especially with calfskin. I know of a huge reader one, but not the smaller oxford one.

      • I have one of the older Oxford BCP/NRSV smaller ones; it doesn’t have an ISBN on it. The Oxford UP item number is stamped on one of the end pages: 9616 AP and then 890.

        • Interesting. Mine is the black bonded leather with snap cover ans it has 9611 APB 890 on it.

  8. In case you haven’t already read it, there’s a really good chapter in Robert Bringhurst’s Elements of Typographic Style that does an excellent job of explaining why certain proportions work – including all of the mathematics, if you would like to delve into it. The rest of the book is also very worthwhile. It’s the most beautifully written technical book I’ve ever read.

  9. I love the small and fat Bibles. I have a lovely genuine leather Scofield KJV. Unfortunately, these sorts of Bibles seem so difficult to find in anything but bonded leather. It’s quite a shame.

  10. Hello everyone, I’ve posted three hard-to-find Bibles for sale on eBay –
    Thompson Chain KJV in Alaskan Sealskin:
    http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=270375638416
    Vintage Cambridge Sapphire KJV in red calfskin:
    http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=270375659914
    Cambridge REB Bible w/ Apocrypha in black french morocco:
    http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=270376656178
    The Cambridge Sapphire auction ends in 2 days, but the sealskin & REB are sitting at fixed Buy It Now prices. Thanks!

  11. Nate not only go to American Bible Sales but look At their damage selection. I have bought many from them under this section and can not see any damage. They tell you what they mean by damage. Look often as the next day has what you seek.

  12. I happen to love my ESV Personal Size Reference Bible. It’s has 7.4-point type, which is small, but still quite readable for me. It’s dimensions are 5″ x 7 1/4″ x 1 1/8″ which fits perfectly and comfortably in my hand. It’s quite a bit thinner than the NRSV mentioned above, but still has that short and stout feeling compared to most other compact Bibles. It has a single column, paragraph style text block, and it has a sewn binding for longevity. Not to mention, the TruTone cover is quite soft and flexible. For $20, I couldn’t be happier!

  13. Mark, in this post you’ve described exactly what I’m looking for. So I’ll be following your blog closely to hear first news of a reader’s edition of the NRSV, short and fat, with single columns and comfortable type.
    I have the “little brick” BCP/NRSV combo from its earlier Oxford incarnation, and despite bad shelf placement and some page rips due to carelessness, the leather binding is still buttery soft, and the book feels great in the hand. Makes a fine breviary and without all the typos of the Daily Office Book (although I think this is the BCP edition that has us pray on Saturdays that we might be “dully prepared for the service of your sanctuary”).

    • Can you tell me the ISBN? Or maybe post some pics? The leather sounds awesome!

  14. I like Zondervan’s Short and Stout NAS Compact Reference Bible. It’s around 4x6x1.7. I’ve only seen them in black. I wouldn’t say it has a deluxe cover or binding, but the text is stoic, very brief context in the title pages, good concordance and cross-references for the size. It also has the red letter and the button flap available. Peace.

  15. Just last week I obtained KJV with Apocrypha/1928 Book of Common Prayer from the Anglican Parishes Association. The book’s short and stout format feels great in the hand. And short of the Anglican Breviary, it’s the only Prayer Book I’ve come across with enough sewn-in ribbons (a full six!).

  16. Leatherbibles.com makes a custom bound Zondervan NAS compact in their calfskin. Tan or black. I plan on getting one. I have a very well used NAS Thompson Chain in brown Cordovan they did years ago and am very content with it. It even does the yoga thing and for such a large thick Bible, that seems a testament to their quality work. It will also lay “Genesis flat” and does the waterfall thing we hold (pun intended) so dearly. They are the only binder I have found that does a true leather liner with no board/cardstock between the inner and outer leather. Very nice craftsmanship.

  17. I second Nate’s endorsement of the ESV personal size reference Bible. I’m down for the single column format, much more readable. I find that I tend to read a little longer than with my double column Bibles, which is weird.
    I remember a post long ago about, “Making Single-column format work.” I have a New Inductive Study Bible by Harvest House in NASB that fits those parameters about exactly. I love that Bible.

  18. Hi,
    Does anyone know where I might be able to find a Pocket Edition NRSV Anglicized text in Calfskin with semi-yapp edges? This was the description given by the Church of England web site; The Anglicized NRSV adopts British usage for spelling, grammar, punctuation, and phrasing. This elegant pocket sized edition, with the Apocryphal / Deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament, is bound in black calfskin leather, semi-yapp style with gilt blocking, gilt edges and a ribbon marker. Printed in a small, but very readable type face on fine British paper and featuring a chronological list of rulers and a table of measures and weights. Size: 170mm x 125mm. Publication Date: 15/10/1998
    Publisher: Oxford University Press
    Binding: Leather, Black
    ISBN No: 0191070475
    It would seem its out of print now, but are there any “new old stock” copies available?
    Many thanks
    Alan
    p.s. an excellent site!

  19. My wife gave me this Bible/Prayer Book after I exclaimed that it would be perfect for my trips to Africa. When travel dictates packing extremely lightly I bring this and love it. It feels nice in the hand and is easy to hold when conducting services. The only problem with having both in one is I need more ribbons!

  20. I prefer short fat Bibles. The small NIV Study Bible is a perfect size. If only there was a KJV or NKJV equivalent size. It’s all about the heft, the feel of the Bible in your hand.

  21. Something I just came across that is interesting, if not quite perfect, is “The Scriptures”, a Nelson setting of the New Century Version. Amazon lists a hardbound edition (ISBN-10 = 0718010922) and a bonded leather one (ISBN-10 = 0718010930.) I got a seemingly brand new hardbound for twenty-nine cents plus shipping through an Amazon Used retailer. (All NCVs are pretty heavily discounted right now.)
    The text block is 5″ x 6.5″ and can be described as diary-sized. The font is attractive, if perhaps a little light for my taste and is marketed as 10points although I’d call it closer to 9. Still it’s readable, with the exception of quite bad ghosting. 1000 pages are only 0.63″ so each sheet is only 1.26 mils. The 1870-page volume bulks up to 1.25 inches. If they’d used thicker (or more expensive) paper to reduce the ghosting they’d have a real winner on their hands. (Does anyone have a leather edition? Is it possible it used better paper???)
    This is the only single-column NCV I’m aware of. (The NCV reminds me of the NLT, and there aren’t many single-column editions of the NLT either.) The binding is sewn, but side-stitched, not saddle-stitched. This binding is typical of pew bibles, and like most pew bibles, it can open fairly flat once it’s broken in. The font is quite narrow, so there’s about 18-20 words per line but it still reads well, except for the ghosting.
    This short and stout form factor really feels good in the hands. One gets the impression it still would if it were twice as thick due to a larger font or thicker paper.

  22. Speaking of short and stout, I’ve just inherited great-grandmother’s German Bible that came over from der Vaterland circa 1850. It’s published in 1805, has “trim” dimensions of 6.5 x 4 x 2.25 inches thick and it’s simple Fraktur text in 2-column layout (sheez, weren’t they reading Mark’s blog back then?) 1000 pages bulks to 1-5/8 inches so each sheet is 3.3 mils, very thick by modern standards. The volume just feels good in the hand and one can’t help but wonder how nice a single-column, paragraphed text in 10 or 11 points would be in that format with modern (but not too modern!) paper. Sure, the 2.5 inch thickness wouldn’t fit in a computer bag, but I think we could still manage to get it back and forth to church. The Penguin paperback edition of David Norton’s KJV comes close, but please can’t we have a leather cover like great-grandma had?
    That cover, by the way, with the exception of the missing hinges, is still in great shape, although the highly acidic paper is sure crumbling away.

  23. Ok… so is the NRSV/BCP combo available at all with a calfskin binding? More ribbons of course would be nice but, I assume per Mark’s earlier post that Oxford decided against more ribbons for some odd reason.

  24. I found a stack of short & fat KJVs in the Sunday School closet of the church where I just became pastor. Most of them have had their covers separated from the text block, but one or two haven’t. They have that same short & fat, good in the hand feel that we’ve been talking about. I might try my hand at repairing one or two, in my spare time (when I get some). They have dark bluish-green thin hardcovers, printed by the American Bible Society but no year listed. The text is self-pronouncing, but it’s the most pleasing setting of same that I’ve beheld. Hardly interferes with reading at all. I might be borrowing one of these for a little while. :)

  25. Can anyone offer the isbn for the earlier BCP/NRSV oxford editions?

  26. It appears Crossway’s single column Heritage ESV meets the short and stout criterion. 5×7 trim, 1800+ pages thick, 9pt font, ~13 words/line; ~17 syllables/line. Page sample at
    http://static.crossway.org/excerpt/bibles/single-column-heritage/single.column.heritage.interior.pdf
    I’d have preferred a bit thicker yet and 10pts but the sample looks quite readable. I worry the outer margins are a little too skinny for extended reading but I suppose the Legacy is maybe a bit TOO much wasted space. Amazon is selling some of the binding styles already…anyone have one?

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