R. L. Allan HCSB in Crimson Highland Goatskin

The R. L. Allan edition of the Holman Christian Standard Bible, available from R. L. Allan direct and from EvangelicalBible.com, comes in your choice of three limp Highland goatskin bindings: black (with blue ribbons), brown (with gold ribbons), and crimson (with red ribbons, pictured here).

The book blocks, supplied by Holman, are printed in South Korea. The text setting is a traditional two-column layout with center column references, with a concordance and nicely produced color maps in back.

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While I don't know the name of the typeface, it's a style with which I'm familiar: tall, thin and a bit light, like a duster-clad cowboy in a spaghetti western.  

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This is the first time I've written about the HCSB, so I want to note a number of quirks of formatting which I found off-putting. In the Introduction, a list of "traditional features found in the Holman CSB" is given, one of which reads: "Nouns and personal pronouns that clearly refer to any person of the Trinity are capitalized." So Jesus doesn't tell his followers "come to me" in Matthew 11:28, but rather "come to Me," and when Peter comes to him in Matthew 18:21, he doesn't come to him, he comes to Him. 

This, of course, is not a tradtional feature of English Bibles, as a quick look at any Bible published prior to, say, the mid-to-late twentieth century will demonstrate. Like red letter editions, capitalizing divine pronouns is one of those pieties of recent origin masquerading as ancient practice. The Chicago Manual of Style recommends against it, as do style guides produced by evangelical publishers (at least, the ones I was able to check). No doubt there will be readers who prefer this sort of formatting, just as they prefer red lettering, under the mistaken impression that it more traditional and pious than the standard form. It isn't.

The HCSB's "special formatting features" include some oddities, too. Quotations from the OT found within the NT are presented not in quoatation marks or italics, but in boldface type. Why, I don't know, but the visual effect can be quite distracting, especially when an OT quotation doubles up with red lettering: 

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I'm going to hazard a guess and say this formatting decision was made by a non-designer. You see, an experienced designer would have pointed out that most long quotations in the NT, because they are from the OT, will already be set apart as a block quote. Adding another layer of emphasis creates a visual redudancy, as you can see here:

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Had I been in the design chair when this idea came down the line, I would have responded by quoting The Elements of Typographical Style, 3.4.2: "Sparingly used, [boldface] can effectively emphasize numbers or words, such as the headwords, keywords and definition numbers in a dictionary. They can also be used (as they often are) to shout at readers, putting them on edge and driving them away…"

Another feature I would have advised against is the practice of using dark black bullet points to indicate "foreign, geographical, cultural, or ancient words" which are explained in the Bullet Notes in back. It's not the concept I have a problem with, just its execution. Those big black dots are extremely distracting. I'm not sure how important it is in Acts 10, for example, to have a bullet point in front of centurion and another in front of Regiment. (If you look up Regiment, by the way, you're simply referred to the entry for company, where you learn that the unit the centurion — not the colonel, despire the R-word — commands is in fact a cohort.)

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One last peculiarity. The problem with getting creative in the search for ways to add emphasis is that, like an arms race, the escalation never ends. Several times in Scripture, a line of written text is cited — the sign attached to Christ's cross, for example, or the inscription Paul cites at Mars Hill. The elegant way of indicating such an instance would be to set the text in letterspaced small caps. But the HCSB is not an elegant layout. It's solution to the problem is characteristically over the top: capitalized boldface type surrounded by a box:

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To me, this is akin to jacking up the type size when Paul refers to how large his own handwriting has become, or using script font for words on a scroll. It's simply too literal, and calls an inordinate amount of attention to itself. To sum up, the HCSB is, typographically, a bit of a mess. 

However, there is one shining exception to this condemnation, and such a valuable one in my mind that it very nearly offsets the negatives. The HCSB's special formatting notes include the following: "In dialogue, a new paragraph is used for each new speaker as in most modern publications." This is a big deal. While modern translations have pretty much universally embraced paragraphing (to the delight of readers and the chagrin of proof-texting preachers), they have not embraced the practice fully — i.e., the paragraphs still tend to bury dialogue instead of breaking it out. Obviously, this is a decision that has to be made at the translation level. If a designer makes the decision, people get bent out of shape. Let me just say, with Holman-style emphasis: TRANSLATION TEAMS, THIS IS AN EXAMPLE TO FOLLOW

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Above: If it doesn't look like this, you're not paragraphing enough.

I also appreciate the fact that care was taken with line breaks in poetry to avoid the sort of indescriminate slice-and-dice characteristic of double-column settings of verse. So there's good and bad when it comes to the design of this edition, all of it the result of design choices made at the translation level. This is emphatically not by kind of layout. However, loyal readers of the HCSB will clearly have made peace with these factors. Their question has more to do with this particuarly edition. Is it worth having? Let's find out.

As I remarked in the video, thinline Bibles like this are perhaps the best way to experience the limpness of a natural goatskin, edge-lined binding. Something about a tall, thin book block wrapped in unresistingly soft leather feels so right. 

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A note on Highland goatskin, given my use of the word "soft." Occasionally, I'll hear someone remark in shock that their spongy, matte black calfskin cover is much softer than their Highland goatskin from Allan. The confusion is probably my fault. Sometimes it's difficult to find the right vocabulary to express varieties of sensation. These bindings are limp and unresisting, but they are not plush. The leather has a traditional glossy finish — what I think of as a "hard" finish, though again, the word isn't quite right. They resist wear and marking much better than leather finished with a casual, matte look. Think flexible armor, not baby's bottom or pillowtop mattress.

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Because the goatskin is natural-grain, there are variations from cover to cover. Some of my Highland goatskin covers are quite smooth, while others are deeply grained like the one in the photos. I love both, but there's something about the wrinkly covers that really speaks to me. Either way, they're amazingly floppy. You can't hold one without wanting to roll it up:

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Not only does this feel good, but it affords interesting opportunities for storage. In the comments to previous posts, we've discusssed whether Bibles with semi-yapp covers should be stood upright on a bookshelf. My answer? Of course not. They should be rolled up and stored like so: 

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If you read the HCSB — particularly if you teach or preach from it — the R. L. Allan edition is the best copy you could invest in. All the features that make an Allan binding so appealing are here — the beautiful cover, the leather lining, three thick ribbons, art gilt page edges. The form factor of the book block is particularly well suited to the materials, which means you'll experience the advantages of the limp binding to an extent you never would with a more traditional mid-sized Bible. 

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My issues with the typography aside, this is a nice Bible, and certainly a welcome addition for readers of the HCSB who've been hoping for an R. L. Allan's version of their favorite translation.

18 Comments on “R. L. Allan HCSB in Crimson Highland Goatskin

  1. You’re right, Gary — but now it’s fixed. Sorry about that!

  2. Interesting post, I don’t think that the HCSB hasn’t made much, if any, headway over here in the UK. I have a copy, which was a gift sent over the pond by Mike Smith which is an ultrathin reference edition of the HCSB in genuine leather. I agree with Mark that the text setting is idiosyncratic to say the least. Neither am I wholly convinced by the claims of ‘optimal equivalence’ in terms of a translation philosophy (optimised for who I wonder) – but that’s for a different blog. I would imagine this will sell better in the States where the translation has more of devoted following, despite the tempting liquidity of this binding I’ll be sticking with my genuine leather copy for the present as I just don’t use the version enough, though a future rebind is a possibility.

  3. I wonder if the Ten Commandments show in a list format in the shape of a tablet? Interesting translation.

  4. I like the words of Christ in red so I can tell at a glance when Jesus is speaking as opposed to someone else or the narrator. It has nothing to do with piety or tradition for me.

  5. Can anyone confirm whether or not the R.L. Allan version contains the updated 2009 text? I’m a big fan of the HCSB but would be hesitant to invest in an older version of the translation due to the large number of changes made to the 2009 rendering. I made the switch to the HCSB after the NIV 2011 version was released. (The 1984 NIV had been my main Bible until recently.) The only design choice that would give me pause to purchase this Bible would be the use of red lettering-none of my Bibles have it.

  6. Thanks for another great review, Mr. Bertrand. If I’m right, I believe the “highly anticipated” (at least by me!) Allan NKJV with the Holman Large Print text block will be very similar to the size of this one, with the slimmer profile! After viewing your video, I think I just might go with the crimson NKJV!

  7. For the record, I don’t like red letters “under the mistaken impression that it more traditional and pious than the standard form.” I like them because I enjoy the look.

  8. @Steve – this is the 2004 version unfortunately.
    I completely agree with Mark’s review. While the bold text for OT references, bullet notes, and other text features are interesting…they kinda bugged me over time.
    I read though the HCSB about a year ago and in all I liked it…it has a quirkiness that comes through in the translation (eg “temple police”), but I like how it is not wordy (I believe it has the lowest word count by far compared to other translations) and therefore feels pretty “sharp” at times. I would like them to decide on how often they are going to translate YHWH as Yahweh.

  9. I appreciate your review. I am very unhappy with the design. As a retired Typographer/designer/typesetter, my opinion is that the text block looks like a circus ad. I will not be getting one.

  10. I like red letter editions because they are handy when you want to quickly look up somthing that Jesus said. I think that most are just used to that format, not because they look at it as more pious. I grew up with the Scofield Reference Bible so I am used to red letter and find it useful. Also I must admit I like the idea of each person of the Trinity’s name being capitalized. In Bible college I had a habit of doing that as well when writting a research paper on that topic. I think somtimes in more Reformed circles many elements that some Beleivers hold dear are mocked as being irrelevant or not “high brow” if you will enough. For instance the Scofield Bible. It is indeed Pre-mill, dispensational, quirky, and sometimes flat out wrong in its notes, but why desparage a person who reads one becasue it isn’t an ESV Reformation Study Bible,(which is great by the way, but does contain theological errors as well in my opinion)? I knew a reformed Believer who once mocked and older Beleiver who had a portrait of the Sallman’s Head on his wall. All I am saying is many churches, even protestant and independant have their traditions,a nd as long as they are not contrary to Scripture what harm do they cause? Thanks for reading!

  11. Sorry for the misspelled words above, I wrote it rather quickly. i before e except after c!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  12. As for capitalized pronouns for deity, I rather like them. I think they show respect for God (just my opinion). Also, there are some contexts where the capitalization of a personal pronoun for deity can let you know which m/Me is speaking in a verse or two that has more than one “me” in it.

  13. One problem with capitalized pronouns that hasn’t been mentioned is that the practice necessitates interpretation on the part of the translators in some debatable cases. That basically runs counter to the usual arguments made by formal equivalence advocates.
    With regard to red letters, another issue is legibility. At this point (depending on the quality, brightness, etc) I have trouble reading more than a few paragraphs of red letters before my eyes start burning. So I’m planning on going exclusively with “black letter” editions from now on.

  14. I was just looking at my HCSB Minister’s Bible. I have the 2010 edition with the 2009 version of the HCSB translation. It has black print for the words of Jesus. It does not have the box around the “unknbown God” quotation in Acts. And the big, black bullet points are greatly reduced so that they are far less obtrusive. It will be great when Allan can use a more current book block.

  15. I think I know where you have seen that typeface before: it is similar to, if not the same as, the first edition of the NIV Study Bible. But apart from the typeface, which I like, the typography and layout need a lot of improvement.

  16. I did really recommend your blog, and thanks you have put a lot more work into it. I will keep your blog in my twitter so I can come back and see it again when it has some new information. Good subject!

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