Are Reader’s Bibles (Finally) Here To Stay?

Now that the ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set is here and Bibliotheca is promised by the end of the year, the question I’ve been asked is, “Are reader-friendly Bibles are here to stay?” The concept isn’t new, of course. Even multi-volume, slipcased editions of Scripture have been released before. They came, they saw, they faded away. What makes this moment in time any different?

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The 1930s called and it wants its multi-volume slipcased single column Reader’s Bible back! As this set shows, the concept isn’t new … the question is, will it stick around this time?

Two Reading Recommendations

Over the summer, Comment published an issue dedicated to technology, and they invited me to chip in with some thoughts on how emerging e-book tech might be reshaping our expectations for printed Bibles. The result — “Are Bible Apps Destined to Purify the Printed Word?” — makes the case for why beautifully-designed  printed Bibles like the ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set might owe a debt to the proliferation of Scripture apps on our phones:

“The fulfillment of the hypertext dream by digital Bibles has cleared the way for printed Bibles to pursue other ends. The most exciting reinvention of the printed Scriptures is the so-called reader’s Bible, a print edition designed from the ground up not as a reference work but as a book for deep, immersive reading.”

Some of the same thoughts came up in an interview I did for 2K/Stories not long ago. Johs Krejberg Haahr asked all sorts of interesting questions, but given 2K/Denmark’s passion for good design, it’s not surprising we spent a lot of time on Bibles and readability:

“Reading from a study or reference edition can sometimes feel like watching a movie for the first time with the cast-and-crew commentary turned on. The information is helpful, yes, but it can sure get in the way of the film. I can understand the desire to pack a Bible full of extras. The challenge of designing such a text can be exhilarating. But the easiest way to prevent all the features from getting in the way of Scripture is not to design around them. It is to cut the features. An unmediated — or at least, minimally mediated — design might have just one feature: readability. But that’s a pretty good feature to have.”

Obviously, readability has always been one of the things people want out of a Bible. My unscientific hunch, though, is that the more we’ve come to rely on software (and especially apps) for all the other features, the more open we become to letting printed Bibles focus on the thing they still do best.

Two Listening Recommendations

I don’t know about you, but I love podcasts. One of these days, I’d like to create a Bible design podcast. In the meantime, it’s always a blast to be featured on other people’s shows. I have been talking about Scripture, good design, and all sorts of other stuff. Here’s a chance to check those conversations out:

The Reformation Roundtable, Episode 9:
Interview with BibleDesignBlog.com

Mike and Scott picked my brain about all sorts of things, from quality Bibles to theology. They’re avid readers, and love talking about my favorite topic: books.

The Red Letters Dialogues:
A Primer on Well-Crafted Bibles –
Interview with J. Mark Bertrand of Bible Design Blog
Jio seems to hate badly-made books as much as I do — maybe more. He asked a lot of great questions, and hopefully I held up my end of the conversation.

The photo above, by the way, depicts a King James Version published in the 1930s by the Limited Edition Club. I found the Old Testament set in a used bookstore a few years ago. The layout is beautiful, the margins plentiful, and the volumes themselves are nicely made. My wish is that, with the 6-Volume Reader’s Bible and Bibliotheca and (hopefully) other sets cut from the same cloth, this kind of edition will leave the realm of antiquarian curiosities and come to represent a sustainable segment in the Bible market.

18 Comments on “Are Reader’s Bibles (Finally) Here To Stay?

  1. Are you aware of any other plans for publishers to release similar editions? I’d be especially interested in an NIV readers’ Bible.

      • Richard, I’ve just left Biblica (producer of the NIV The Books of the Bible, which Zondervan now publishes as a one-volume edition) to join the Institute for Bible Reading full time. I can tell you that I heard plans for both the NIV and NLT to come out in higher quality multi-volume reader’s editions.

      • I’m working on a kjv bible I’d love for you to take a look at. I sent you an email. It will have no verse numbers, chapter numbers, or other “additions”. It will be very minimal and readable.

        I’m already working on getting the text prepared, and am in the in-depth planning phase. If anyone wants to help, I have many aspects to discuss from proofreading to printing tips. Anyhow, I am going to do everything i can to make this happen and as soon as i feel ready enough, I’ll start a kickstarter. So spread the word! Uber awesome kjv readers bible!!! 😉

        I’d love to send you a preliminary printed page for review mark. 🙂

        • Sean, I’m very interested in this. Where are you at in the process now? ? I have the Clarion, which truly is great, but having one more akin to a true reader’s Bible would be amazing!

  2. And just last week in Barnes & Noble I saw the KJV and NKJV single-volume reader’s Bibles by Holman. With Bibliotheca and the 6-volume ESV coming out this fall, what excites me is the emergence of a new category of Bibles, not just a few niche editions. It’s starting to feel like this might be part of a larger movement.

    • Hi Glenn:
      I’m about halfway through your book. Wow. I picked it up basically because I was intrigued by the title; now I want every leader in my church (and all of my friends) to read it. Thank you for urging us to read the Bible better and more deeply! I hope your book will reach a very wide audience.

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  4. I just don’t understand why the translator’s footnotes are not included in these Reader’s bibles. The translator’s footnotes are actually part of the translation and not extraneous material. The translators included them for a very important reason. Sometimes the correct reading of the text may lie in a variant in the footnotes.

    • Ted, I sort of had that thought at first, too. I use text footnotes much more than cross-references. But then I thought that footnotes at the bottom of the page might interrupt the flow of reading (not for me, but for the purists), and if they were at the back of the volume or even at the end of each book, they would be inconvenient, and that would interrupt those who want to read them even more. If they’re not conveniently located, I suppose it’s almost (well, not really) as easy to look them up in another Bible or on an electronic app. I don’t guess there’s a perfect solution for them. I must say when I’m reading The Gospels reader’s edition, I get caught up in reading and don’t really miss them.

      I do agree the translators’ footnotes are part of the translation and are often very helpful in a practical way. Also, many non-fiction “regular” books do have footnotes, often at the end of each chapter. The one I’m reading now has a few, and they don’t hinder my enjoyment of reading.

      That said, and from my experience with The Gospels, I think I’ll be very content with the reader’s set. I’ll always have my other Bibles!

    • Hi Ted, I think the reason for this is that these editions are all about giving a reading experience like a novel, which typically don’t have footnotes. I think that’s also why Crossway offers other lovely editions like the ESV Single-Column Heritage Bible, which offers a reading experience similar to that of the single-volume Reader’s edition, but still has all the helps.

      A couple years ago when I was looking to replace my worn out ESV Thinline edition, I bought the Single-Column Heritage edition over the Reader’s edition because I wanted the translators notes and like all the other helps, but also because it was still beautifully designed for reading, and I have not regretted that decision. Reading God’s word from that has been a delight, and I’ve often thanked God that he’s been so gracious in not only providing his word to us, but in allowing us to have many beautiful editions in recent years.

  5. I hope a few things will help them stick around. The first being that Crossway gets this generation and knows how to advertise and use social media (perhaps other publishers do too, but I had no idea there was an edition like this of the NIV, so how is that one going to last?), so I think they will play a big part in it. I think excellent Video productions like the one they put out, and the one Adam Greene put out that so capably describe the reasons to have editions like will help it stick around.

    I wonder if the fact that when previous editions like this came out, they didn’t have the internet to produce communities like this one, as well as the ability to advertise on such a broad scale may have contributed to their short life-spans. I also think this generation has produced a large number of people who want nice bibles and may engender that to the next generation.

    Could be wrong, of course, but I hope not. I’m personally going to do my part to keep sharing the word about these editions because the more people realize they exist at all, the more I think the interest will remain.

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  7. Interesting conversation. I am convinced that reader’s paragraph bibles are not here to stay. Nobody sits down to read the scriptures like a novel. In fact originally neither the Old nor the New Testament were “read”–they were “heard.” And it was only small sections at a time that were “heard.” Biblical papyri or codices were read out loud to Jewish/Christian communities. Nobody had personal bibles which they brought to church. So there is no “reading” experience to talk of in Second Temple Judaism or Early Christianity. Initially the scriptures were not printed in “verse” style because space was at a premium. Hence in papyri and codices all the words run into each other, with no gaps or punctuation. This, then, should not be seen as a proto-paragraph style bible. The function of versification in the traditional bible was to facilitate easy reading, viz., to enable the reader to find passages and single out verses for meditation and study. I have personally found it impossible to do either with “bible-as-novel” productions (of which I’ve several). I simply find myself getting lost in a welter of detail and dense paragraphs. Paragraph bibles do not assist my concentration and do not inspire me to pause and reflect on the Word. The bible is much more a liturgical book than novel: small chunks at a time to chew on and inwardly digest. I think reader’s editions of the bible will prove faddish in the end, and the market for double column bibles will return with a vengeance! But maybe not…I sense that the very concept of reading the bible as “novel” is an indication of the degree to which twenty first century believers have moved away from the kind of in-depth study of the Word which now belongs to a by-gone age. The reality is that biblical illiteracy is very high among Christians across the board. Changing the printed format of the scriptures is not going to change this, alas.

    • I think there is a place for both verse by verse and paragraph form Bibles. Personally, I do find that a readers format helps my comprehension and focus, and makes reading seem effortless. I certainly am not, and I don’t think others are, likening the Scriptures to a novel in any way. They are, of course, not a novel. Other works of non-fiction also are not novels, but usually share a sentence and paragraph format. We are accustomed to reading material in sentences and paragraphs. I like the readers Bibles especially for extended reading and comprehension of larger blocks of Scriptures. The Bible is rather unique (among many other ways it’s unique) in that it lends itself amazingly well to picking out a sentence here and there which have great meaning and wisdom apart from the whole. But the whole is still there and is very valuable.

      In my experience, I (and many others) have spent too much time reading very small portions of Scripture (a verse or few verses) at a time and too little time reading large blocks of it at a sitting. For the past couple of years, I’ve read larger portions and have gained a better understanding of the overall message of the Bible. While certainly possible in a verse by verse format, I find a readers format makes reading and comprehension flow more easily. JMO, of course.

  8. The single volume ESB Reader was my first exposure to the format and I immediately fell in love with it. I consider it the best all-around Bible I own, especially the buttery soft Tru-Tone I use for travel. A hard cover sets on a second desk and has greatly stimulated my reading. Now when I go back to the NASB Ryrie or NASB Reference I started with I wonder how I ever saw the text amidst all the clutter. I’ve bought many copies to give away to friends as I want to encourage them in their own reading of the scriptures.

    Then I stumbled on the ESB Gospel reader and experienced the gospels like never before. When Crossway published the six volume set I had to have it. This is an amazing project and would be my one-and-only Bible if life weren’t so mobile.

    In summary the Reader format has set me on a course of study for many years to come.

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