Critics divide an artist's lifetime of work into eras or periods. If I were to do the same thing for the R. L. Allan Reader's Edition ESV, I'd have to say this comes from a later, mature period, in which a variety of earlier experiments have come together to create a superlative and very refined edition. The ESV1 in its various iterations, the ESV3, the recent PSR ... all that labor has now culminated in a work of art.
These days, things often fail to live up to the hype. I'll be honest, the idea of a bigger Allan's ESV didn't get me too excited. I like small. So my expectations weren't as high as some. Then I opened the box and saw the Reader's Edition for the first time. My expectations reset.
It's not a question of innovation. We've seen most of the details before. The genius here is the execution. Everything is better than before. Allan's took the now-defunct Heirloom setting of the ESV -- essentially an enlarged Classic Reference -- and commissioned a special printing by Collins, adding extra space at the margins and selecting a higher quality paper than what we've seen on previous Collins-printed text blocks. The margins change the footprint. This isn't just a bigger ESV1. It's taller and also wider, which means it takes full advantage of the liquid flexibility of the highland goatskin covers. For the first time, Allan's has delivered an ESV that rivals the KJV Long Primer for look and feel.
The color options are consistent with the ESV1 range: tan with copper/tan ribbons; brown with copper/tan, green, and purple ribbons; and black with dark blue ribbons. As with all naturally grained covers, you'll see variation from skin to skin. Of the three pictured here, the black has the most pronounced, most rustic grain, the brown is the most smooth and refined, and the tan lies somewhere in between.
They're beautiful, of course. My wife is accustomed to a superfluity of Bibles around the house, and as a result they all look the same to her. Not these. She seized one (the dark brown) and started explaining to me everything she liked about it. Needless to say, that one's hers.
While there's variation in the grain, color is very consistent. The new Allan's Pocket Journals match their big brothers perfectly. The paper in the journals is the same as what's bound in the back of each Reader's Edition. Seeing them together reinforces the maturity I mentioned earlier. This is a range of editions now, not just a handful of unrelated options.
Let's start on the outside and work our way in. The Reader's Edition has more in common with the ESV1 than color options. The covers are identical. In a photograph, without any reference for sizing, you might mistake one for the other. That's a good thing, in my book, because the ESV1 is superb. The Reader's Edition has the same naturally-grained goatskin cover, which means there's no heat-stamping to give the leather added stiffness. The inside front cover is stamped HIGHLAND GOATSKIN and the inside back is stamped ALLAN BINDING. As with the other ESVs in the range, the text blocks were sourced from Collins, then bound in the UK by a binder that also does work for Smythson of Bond Street.
But things aren't the same under the cover. Paper quality is a growing concern among readers, and R. L. Allan has taken that to heart. This edition's paper has been upgraded. Combined with the added margins, something magical happens, something that makes the same leather cover that's on the ESV1 seem not at all the same. The weight of the text block and its relative width and slimness create the "Long Primer effect," a melty, decadent slouch that delivers pure tactile bliss.
If the photo above reminds you a Cambridge wide margin, it should. The Reader's Edition feels very similar in use, though the scale is slightly different. Here's a stack of ESVs, smallest to largest:
On top is the discontinued compact edition (rebound by Abba Bibles for LeatherBibles.com), then the Deluxe Compact (rebound in natural pigskin by Leonard's). These represent the small end of the spectrum, more or less pocket-sized. Third from the top is the new R. L. Allan Personal Size Reference, which is a step up in size, roughing the same footprint as a Pitt Minion but twice as thick. In the middle is the venerable ESV1. Underneath it comes first the Cambridge Wide Margin ESV and then the Reader's Edition. The ESV Study Bible is at the bottom.
This photo illustrates the realities of scale. The Reader's Edition is a little taller than a Cambridge Wide Margin, but not as wide. It's a little taller and just as wide as an ESV Study Bible, but less than half as thick. Another angle to better illustrate the point:
Looking at the spines, you get a sense that the Reader's Edition is the same (perhaps even a little bigger) as a Cambridge Wide Margin and the ESV Study Bible. From this angle, though, it starts looking smaller than both. That proportion -- tall and wide but not too wide -- accounts for the beautifully balanced feel of the Reader's Edition in your hands. It's big, but not too big. The proportions seem generous but right. Out of the box, these Bibles feel well-worn and broken in, like you've been using them for a decade or so.
This is probably the best Allan's ESV to use for self-defense, too. Curl it up in your hand like a rolled newspaper (see above) and the size and weight will make it quite handy. Ideal for pounding a pulpit. Speaking of which, I think the name "Reader's Edition" is a misnomer. I understand where the idea comes from: the larger type size makes reading easier. But this is a Teacher's Edition plain and simple. If you preach or teach from the ESV, this is the ideal Bible. The type is large enough that you're not going to lose your place or strain while reading. The cover is limp and flexible enough to fold back so it's never in the way.
One question that came up on the Bible Design Blog Facebook fan page was whether the Reader's Edition page numbers match the ESV1. They do. This is essentially an enlarged ESV1, so page spreads match perfectly, as you can see:
Another thing that came up was this: based on early photos, some people expressed disappointment with the Reader's Edition because the paper didn't seem any better than the ESV1's. Compare the photo above and you'll see there's "ghosting" on both. You can see through the thin Bible paper to words printed on the reverse of the page, and even on pages underneath. This is one of those instances where photos can be deceiving. Yes, there's ghosting, and it's especially visible on the poetry pages where there's plenty of white space. But the paper is not at all the same as the earlier Collins text blocks. It feels smoother, looks brighter, and pretty much outshines the ESV1 and PSR pages.
What it reminds me of is the Primalux GSM 30 paper used in the ESV Study Bible. You see ghosting there as well, but not as bad as you get with the lesser editions. Frankly, I had a hard time capturing the differences in my photos, but here's a side-by-side of the Reader's Edition and the ESV Study Bible to get the idea across. The type size in the ESV Study Bible is 9.5, while the Reader's Edition bumps up to 10.3 points.
In fact, the ESV Study Bible came to mind again and again as I flipped through the Reader's Edition. The form factor is so similar, but coming in at less than half the thickness, Reader's Edition doesn't come off like a leather-bound brick. As much as I like the ESV Study Bible (and I really do), it still a little big for regular carry, especially for a weight-weenie like me. But I could see carrying the Reader's Edition. When my wife commandeered the brown one, that's the first question I asked her: "Is this thing too big to carry?" She didn't think so. "It's the perfect size for resting on your lap." So there.
The text is Anglicized, which means words like color are spelled colour. Don't worry, though. The disciples don't wear bowler hats and call each other chaps. If you're a speaker of Americanized English, you might not notice the differences. If you do, be assured they're not typos.
Notice the reverse of the title page (below). It reads "Produced for R. L. Allan & Son Publishers." In the past, the Allan process has typically involved sourcing existing text blocks from their printers and then having them rebound in fine leather. According to Allan's intrepid Nicholas Gray (or St. Nicholas, as I think of him) they've had more input into the production of this edition than any other. And it shows.
Inside the front and back cover, you'll noticed a line of overcasting, a reinforcing stitch used to better support the binding. This is a detail often seen on vintage Bibles -- in fact, old Oxfords used to come with a card explaining to consumers that this was a benefit, not a defect. These days, you don't see overcasting very often. Personally, I appreciate the fact that they've located it just before the first page of Genesis, so that you can still open the Bible flat at the beginning. I have some older Bibles where the overcast stitching is deeper into the text, and I don't like that.
The Reader's Edition cover has generous semi-yapp edges, which means the leather overhangs and curves around the text block in a protective embrace. This ought to be standard on Bibles. It serves a useful purpose and looks great, too. Alas, many semi-yapp covers project straight out, leaving you to bend them over (or not). I like the molded look these edges give to the cover.
The soft semi-yapp edges mean you should never try this at home:
I couldn't help it, though. If you're tempted to keep these beauties on the shelf ... don't. Just look at this photo to get your aesthetic fix, and store the real thing horizontally. I'm not sure the weight would really damage the cover, but I'm not a fan of softcovers stored vertically, unless they're in a slipcase.
The larger size of the Reader's Edition makes it a nice pairing with the full-size Allan's Journal, though the covers won't match completely. With black, you're probably good to go, and the antique brown actually looks pretty good with the dark brown highland goatskin (not to mention my Vaja iPhone case).
The layout is the familiar Classic Reference writ large. As you can see, there's some extra margin, enough for note-taking but not enough to make this a true wide margin edition. If nothing else, the extra space gives the layout room to breath, making the proportions easier on the eyes. Tight margins make a page spread look crowded.
If a true wide margin is what you're looking for, then you would be better off with the Cambridge Wide Margin ESV, which is specially designed for that use. Here, the margins give you more options without moving the Reader's Edition too far into specialized territory. If you're accustomed to making notes in a regular Bible, this will give you more space, and that's the point.
Which of the three is my favorite? You shouldn't have to ask. My wife may have dibs on the brown, but the tan is all mine. It's such an interested and versatile shade, changing with the light. For you traditionalists, I'm happy to report that the black is gloriously executed. In fact, I prefer its coarser grain. I'm sticking with the tan, though. Your mileage may vary.
WHERE TO GET THEM
If you've caught the Reader's Edition bug, you can order them direct from R. L. Allan in Scotland by visiting Bibles-Direct.com. They're also in stock (and apparently shipping fast) at EvangelicalBible.com, which also has an index full of technical facts about these editions.
Here's some buying guidance: if you don't have an Allan's ESV already, this is the one to get. The only obstacle I can think of is the size, so you if can't imagine carrying something that measure 10" x 7.25" x 1.5", maybe the smaller ESV1, ESV3 or PSR would be better. Think long and hard, though. If you already have an ESV1 or ESV3 and you're wondering whether an upgrade is worthwhile, I'd say it depends on whether the ESV is your main Bible or not. If it isn't, then I'm not sure if the upgrade is necessary. But if you're using the ESV primarily and looking for a "lifetime" companion, the Reader's Edition seems to fit that bill perfectly. (I'd be interested in hearing what others think.) If you're preaching or teaching from the ESV, I strongly recommend this edition.
The PSR is still a better compact reader in my book, thanks to its single column text setting and handy size. I'd love to see the PSR printed on this quality paper, with some extra margin and fuller yapp.
It's a merry Christmas indeed for people who love quality bindings. The Reader's Edition sets a very high standard, raising the bar for future Allan's Bibles. Every detail here is right, and the result is sheer poetry. Cue the triumphal music, because this one lives up to the hype. It's every bit as good as we were led to believe it would be. And that's saying something.