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?
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.
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.
To mark the official launch of the ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set, Crossway has released a new promotional video and a dedicated website: ReadersBible.org.
The new video includes the earlier scenes from L.E.G.O. I shared in my original post, along with a lot more detail about the design and execution of the set. Fair warning: If you don’t plan to buy one of these Bibles, don’t watch the video. It chronicles every painstaking detail in loving close-ups and captures what Erik Maldre, Crossway’s director of design, describes as the “reverent joy” with which the ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set was created.
The ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set Complete Series
More to come!
This is Part 2 of Bible Design Blog’s look at the ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set. This part focuses on typography and page layout for an index of the complete series, scroll to the bottom of the post.
Most Bibles make sacrifices on the page for the sake of the book. They set fine print text in two columns, packing cross references into a third, jamming as much information as possible onto each and every page. This makes each page a little (or a lot) less readable, but results in a handy book that’s easy to carry around. I first wrote about this tug-of-war between the page and book back in 2008, and everything I wrote then remains true … except in this case.
The ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set doesn’t make sacrifices on the page. Because it divides Scripture into six volumes instead of one, the set doesn’t have to make sacrifices to the book, either. Publishing the set in six volumes cuts the Gordian knot of Bible design, freeing the page to be as readable as possible without condemning the book to unusable proportions.
Along with review copies, the publisher provided me with unbound examples of the 48-page signatures. (If this is a new term, check out my post explaining how books are made: “Inside a Book Block.”) I’m going to use these signatures in the photos rather than a bound book because they’re easier to photograph flat and you get a slightly better sense of the page proportions. Another advantage to having unbound signatures is that I can devote a future post to the paper itself (including some somewhat … destructive testing) without damaging a finished book.
Let’s look at the proportions of a single page. The unbound page measures 7.75 inches tall and 5.5 inches wide. The outer margin is 0.5 inches, while the inner margin allows around an eighth of an inch more to accommodate the binding. The text column is a shade under 3.75 inches wide, and about 5.75 inches tall. The upper margin is roughly 0.75 inches from the top of the sheet to the top of the text column, while the bottom margin affords a bit more room, approximately 1.125 inches.
Page numbers are centered in the bottom margin, and a running section header floats at the top right margin. The top left margin tells you which book you’re in, as you can see in this spread:
Apart from the headers and page numbers, the text flows uninterrupted page after page with the exception of occasional section break. Here, the titles are printed in red ink, as are the drop cap letters that begin the sections. The title in the photo above — “Covenant Requirements” — illustrates the technique. The section titles are attractively set and relatively unobtrusive.
How frequent are these breaks? In the three unbound signatures I have, running from p. 377 through p. 484 in the first volume, Pentateuch, there are no breaks at all in the first signature (pp. 377-412), two in the second (pp. 413-448) — though, in fairness, one of them is the start of Deuteronomy, so it’s introducing rather than breaking into the reading — and one in the third (pp. 449-484).
The rationale for the breaks is to give the reader a broad sense of context within the flow of the text. Deciding where to break and title the text was a judgment call. According to Crossway, they inserted these titles wherever it seemed helpful. If you’re one of those people who was hoping for no breaks at all in the text, don’t get too disappointed. These additions are relatively infrequent, and at least in my experience, they are not distracting.
In Part 1 of the series, I alluded to The Gospels, an earlier volume published by Crossway which, like the ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set, was printed and bound by L.E.G.O. in Italy. Looking back, it’s clear that The Gospels served as a harbinger of things to come. That book is set in the same typeface as the Reader’s Bible and follows the same layout conventions — the running headers, the occasional section breaks with titles. If you compare the two, it becomes clear that the typeset is not exactly the same. The spacing is different, the pages break at different points in the text. Although the paper specification appears to be identical from the colophons, it isn’t (as I will explain in the post dedicated to paper). Yet in most respects the Reader’s Bible represents a refinement of the format launched earlier in The Gospels.
The Trinité No. 2 type is set at 12 points, with 15 points of leading. On a full page without any section breaks or spacing to set off poetry, there are 28 lines of text. By comparison, The Gospels, also set in 12 pt. Trinité No. 2, is more generously leaded — which might explain why, despite the numbers, my eyes refuse to believe that the type is the same size in these two editions. A page in The Gospels holds 26 lines of text, two less than in the Reader’s Bible.
The typography of the Reader’s Bible conveys a sense of timelessness. There are no ruled lines in the header, no sans serif fonts for contrast. Nothing happens on the page that couldn’t have happened a generation ago. Nothing happens that couldn’t have happened in the era of lead type. Some designers might see the choice of classic proportions and type as rigid and formal. Most readers, however, won’t see them at all. Unlike a lot of modern Bible typography, this approach doesn’t scream that it’s a product of the twenty-first century. The Reader’s Bible might have been published fifty years ago looking like it does, or for that matter fifty years from now. To me, that is a good goal to shoot for in a publishing project of this nature.
The Bible like this does not, of course, capture what it must have been like when the church at Ephesus unspooled their letter fresh from the Apostle Paul. Nobody had printed Bibles back then, any more than they read English. Whatever it was like that day, we can never recapture the moment. That isn’t the goal of a reader-friendly Bible, anyway. The point of a Bible like this one is to provide a less mediated experience that supports longer, deeper reads. In old fashioned design parlance, the formatting just gets out of the way of the reading material.
I’m a voracious reader of all kinds of books, good and bad. Thanks to my knowledge of design and typography, I can’t put up with as many sins in those areas as an uninitiated reader might. Still, I relied for years on Bibles whose design and typography was, frankly, bad. While I do not miss those days, it’s not as if I stared uncomprehendingly at the pages of those old fashioned reference Bibles, unable to glean any meaning because of the small type and intrusive apparatus. When I say that the Reader’s Bible is much more, well, readable, I only mean that compared to all those bad examples, this one puts much, much less in the way. As a result, my reading flows more easily. I comprehend more. I make intertextual connections I might otherwise have missed.
The sad thing, from a typographical standpoint, is that the best work goes unnoticed by design. A lot of effort went into the layout and typography of the ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set, only it doesn’t look like it. In the best possible way. You will spend hours reading from one of its volumes, and afterward you will remember what you read, not what you saw on the page.
The ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set Complete Series
More to come!
This is Part 1 of Bible Design Blog’s extended look at the new 6-Volume Reader’s Bible published by Crossway. This post gives an overview of the project and shares my general assessment of its success. In later posts I will dig deeper into some of the details, from the typography and paper to slipcases. For a complete list of articles, scroll to the bottom of this post.
The ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set arrived on my doorstep on the fifteenth of August at 12:53 p.m. It was a warm day, pleasantly windy. The box felt heavy in my arms. I set it on the dining table and went in search of a knife. Before I opened the package, I studied the printing on the side: Legatoria Editoriale Giovanni Olivotto, with an address in Vicenza. The moment felt a bit momentous, so I did something I never do: snapped a photo of the unopened box. I hate unboxing videos. I’m temperamentally opposed to watching a grown person open a package online and linger adoringly over invoice, brochure, and packing peanuts. I resisted the urge to violate this conviction. But only just.
I don’t get excited about Bibles anymore. That’s what I kept telling myself, anyway. For almost a decade I’ve been writing about quality editions of the Bible, poring over details of print and paper and binding. Publishers send review copies, and if I’m interested in what I see, I write about them. When I meet my readers in person, two questions always come up: “Why don’t you post more often?” and “How cool is it that publishers send you free Bibles?” Well, it is cool, but not screaming-like-a-kid-on-a-rollercoaster cool. I’m a professional, after all. Sort of.
So I opened the box and lifted the wooden slipcase from its cushioned berth, pretending that I wasn’t jumping up and down on the inside. I was, though. A lot. And the more time I spend with the 6-Volume Reader’s Bible, the less reserved I get. This is a beautiful concept executed beautifully. It’s one of the best editions I have ever covered at Bible Design Blog.
Good book design should be reader-friendly. Some texts present more of a challenge than others. Novels are easy. Bibles are hard. Scripture consists of sixty-six separate books of various lengths (more if you include the Apocrypha). That’s a lot of words. The simple task of designing a single volume to hold all that and still be readable is a challenge. Then you add all the chapter and verse numbers, the cross-references, the concordances, and the task becomes rather difficult. No matter how good the designer, certain compromises are inevitable: minuscule text, two columns, ant-like armies of references crawling down the margins.
This is what we’re used to.
The history of the printed Bible began in the mid-to-late fifteenth century and quickly became the history of the reference Bible. As Glenn Paauw relates the story in his excellent Saving the Bible from Ourselves, the steady creep of extra-biblical material onto the page resulted by the mid-sixteenth century in the reference edition more or less as we know it today. “It was the death knell for a certain kind of Bible,” Paauw writes, “a Bible that presented something closer to what the Scriptures inherently were.”
Reader’s Bibles are an attempt to unring that bell. They remove the extras and give the biblical text room to breathe. They offer up Scripture in a flowing single column paragraphed layout. They design the Bible like the kind of book you actually read, instead of the sort you only use for looking things up.
Crossway released an excellent ESV Reader’s Bible in 2014. In my review, I expressed the hope that the format would catch on. “I’d love to see one of these on everyone’s shelf, regardless of your preferred translation,” I wrote. “This is a format to spend some time with in the hope of recapturing a less mediated experience of reading the Bible.” Crossway has also published reader-friendly formats of The Psalms and The Gospels (see below).
For some people, the idea of a multi-volume edition of Scripture might be a hard sell. Why would I want a Bible in six volumes, far too heavy and cumbersome for easy portability, when I can have the whole epic story under one cover? Well, dividing the text into multiple volumes actually solves one of the greatest challenges associated with Bible printing: the necessity for sheer, ultra thin paper. Compare the original single-volume Reader’s Bible with the new ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set and you’ll notice one thing right away. The pages in the new set are much more opaque. See, as long as you’re fitting all those words under one cover, thin speciality paper is a must. Dividing the sixty-six books into six separate volumes frees you from that necessity. Whereas the one-volume Reader’s Bible was printed on 30 gsm Apple Thin Opaque paper, this one is printed on 80 gsm Munken Premium Cream. The sales literature describes it as “opaque and soft without being too bulky,” which is right on. Another way of putting it would be, this just feels like a nicely made book. You won’t think about the paper at all. You’ll think about the words on the page.
It helps to stop and consider what kind of set this is. The 6-Volume Reader’s Bible isn’t going to replace your fine print all-in-one edition. That’s not the point. Rather, it fills a niche that has largely gone unaddressed in the past: the need for a Bible designed for a lifetime of reading.
When I develop a love for a particular author, one of the things I do is search for nice editions of that writer’s work. Last year a friend pulled me into a reading challenge: together we would make our way through all of John Buchan’s Richard Hannay novels, from The Thirty-Nine Steps to The Island of Sheep. Since I was planning to spend a lot of time with Buchan, I hunted online for a set of the Folio Society edition of the novels. The five novels are beautifully designed and bound, grouped together in a sturdy slipcase. (Sound familiar?) When you look at the Folio Society set side by side with the 6-Volume Reader’s Bible, a light bulb should illuminate above your head: “Ah ha! So, that’s the kind of thing this is.”
And the 6-Volume Reader’s Bible is quite a good example of that sort of thing, too. In all its details, from design to printing to binding, it compares favorably to the work of high end publishers like the Folio Society.
There are two versions of the set, one bound in cloth-covered boards with slipcase ($110) and another bound leather-over-boards with a dovetailed walnut slipcase ($300). The leather-over-boards set is an EvangelicalBible.com exclusive, by the way. Considering the cost of high quality Bibles these days, the leather set feels like value for money. Both options ooze with distinction, though.
The interior design is new for this edition. The text is set in 12 pt. Trinité No. 2, a typeface “inspired by the ideal harmony found in Renaissance incunabula,” and the lines of text are generously leaded. A single page in the original Reader’s Bible contained 42 lines of text. In the 6-Volume Reader’s Bible, there are just 28. Apart from the occasional section heading, running headers at the top of the page, and the actual page numbers, there is nothing on the landscape but a gloriously proportioned single column text.
In other words, when you open the 6-Volume Reader’s Bible, what you see is just a well-designed book. No clutter, nothing to call attention to itself. Here’s a telling observation: when EvangelicalBible.com posted the first photos of these sets online, creating a bit of a social media sensation, I snapped a photo of the one I happened to be reading and posted it on Instagram. No feeding frenzy, though, because I photographed the book opened on a table, where it is pretty much indistinguishable from any other book — which is the point. (One commenter did get wise: “That looks suspiciously like a Bibliotheca volume.” Well, close.)
Crossway has produced a video that gives us a look inside the production process:
A wealth of production information is included in the booklet accompanying the set, too. The books are printed and bound in Italy by Legatoria Editoriale Giovanni Olivotto — L.E.G.O. for short. Printed on a Timson T48 offset web press, the 48-page signatures are gathered into books and Smyth-sewn. The cover cloth is Manifattura Tasmania 7107 stretched over 2.25 mm board and the ink, in case you’re wondering, is Inkredible Revolution Black. The leather bindings are done in lightly grained black cowhide with a nice sheen.
A Beautiful Read
All of which means little if the 6-Volume Reader’s Bible isn’t a delight to read. Well, it is. It truly is. Each volume, thick or thin, feels good in the hand. They have a trim size of 8” x 5.5” — the same as the original ESV Reader’s Bible — which makes them comfortable to hold. Unlike the leather-over-boards edition of The Gospels, they open flat and are not too bulky. The boards are relatively thin and the leather sufficiently pared to avoid extra thickness.
A deeper look at the paper is coming soon. Suffice to say, the 80 gsm sheets strike a pleasing balance between opacity and suppleness. As much as I love The Psalms and The Gospels, I find the paper in each volume a bit thick. Not here. I can hold these books open with one hand, read for a long period, and never be distracted by bleed-through or the feel of the pages. A well made book doesn’t call attention to itself, and these are well made books. In comparison to the leather-bound editions of those earlier reader-friendly volumes, too, L.E.G.O. has brought an extra level of refinement to the binding.
Each volume has a single ribbon for marking progress. I’m used to having two or three ribbons, so at first I wanted more. Then I remembered that this Bible actually has six ribbons, one in each volume. That’s plenty, right? You will need that ribbon, too, because a Bible like this invites deeper reading. I’m still amazed how much more I read, and how much more I notice in what I read, compared to traditional reference formats.
The question is, do you go with the clothbound set or spring for the leather? On aesthetics, the leather-over-board option wins. The deep black and warm brown combination of leather and wood is ridiculously handsome, not to mention ridiculously photogenic. I’m not as big a fan of the earth-tone cloth-over-board covers with their intricate design … until I handle them. The cloth has a nice tactile feedback, and the volumes feel great in the hand. There really isn’t a bad option here. If you can swing the leather set, though, it’s heirloom quality and I doubt you’ll regret it.
But here’s my real recommendation: find yourself a good reading chair. You will need it. The 6-Volume Reader’s Bible doesn’t want to sit on the shelf. It wants a special nook next to a comfy chair and a lamp.
The ESV Reader’s Bible, Six-Volume Set Complete Series
More to come!
Three things I’ve learned as a novelist that are good advice for anyone in our social media age:
When it comes to Bibles, I’m usually on the giving end of good press, not the receiving end, but this week that changed: Sky Cline of EvangelicalBible.com and Schuyler fame wrote some kind words about how he sees the impact of my work at Bible Design Blog on trends in Bible publishing. That prompted some people on the BDB Facebook page and elsewhere to share their own stories, all of which I found inspiring. And now Sky has expanded his remarks and dedicated a page on the EvangelicalBible.com website to yours truly. Check it out: J. Mark Bertrand at EvangelicalBible.com.
For all of this, I am truly grateful. Whether you agree with Sky that I’ve been “the single most important player in the Quality Bible Renaissance” or not, I want to say thanks for reading the blog. I know I don’t update the blog as frequently as you might wish, and not everyone agrees with the kind of design I’m passionate about. But the fact that you’ve stuck with me since 2007 — and in some cases long before — means a lot. So, thanks.
There are a couple of non-BDB related links I would like to share, too. Some readers of the blog end up following other interests of mine, getting sucked in deeper and deeper in the world of Bertrandia. If you’d like to follow them, here are a couple of options:
Okay, that’s more than enough about me. Next time we’ll be back on topic!
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