Bleeding Through: The Sorry State of Bible Paper

DSC_0004 Back in June, Iyov posted an excellent photo essay titled "Bible paper bleedthrough," using photos from my review of Cambridge's Pitt Minion NKJV to illustrate just how bad the problem of thin, translucent Bible paper really is. In my review, I described the paper as "relatively opaque," saying the ghosted print image from the reverse of the page was "faint, and not pronounced enough to be distracting." Iyov then used the photos illustrating the review to argue that my assessment shows just how far we've sunk:

"...we have become so accustomed to bleedthrough that four layers of text can quality as 'relatively opaque.'"

Fair enough. Far from bucking the verdict, I feel the need to confess. Not just on the paper issue, but across the board. My frame of reference when writing about today's Bibles has increasingly become . . . today's Bibles. Increasingly, I find myself saying, "It's not perfect, but compared to a lot of what's out there, it isn't bad." This represents a shift in perspective. Originally, I judged everything in comparison to my Platonic ideal of a Bible, whereas now I probably indulge too much in the art of the possible. Old Mark believed every Bible should be printed on luscious, entirely opaque paper, with sewn signatures and a quality leather binding. New Mark is pretty happy if just one of those things is achieved. Two sends him over the moon. It's a study, my friends, in declining standards.

DSC_0006 The photo above illustrates a phenomenon that goes by a couple of names -- some call it bleed-through, others ghosting. This is a fragment of Psalm 81, but you can't help but notice Psalm 82 on the reverse of the page. The print image from the reverse side of the page is showing through. In the picture at right, you observe a similar phenomenon, only this time it's handwriting on one side of the page visible on the other. Technically, this is not bleed-through, because the ink hasn't actually bled through the paper. But the ghostly image is visible, and it can interfere with readability.

I have a stack of vintage Bibles at my elbow. Flipping through them, I'd say some level of ghosting is the rule. With thin, translucent paper, I suppose that's to be expected. So the problem today isn't the presence of ghosting per se. It's the amount. The vintage editions might reveal a hint of the reverse page, but the paper looks white to the eye, and in the right light, the ghosting isn't noticeable. With modern Bibles -- and not just the cheap ones -- the ghosting is sometimes hard to ignore. Some Bibles appear to have been printed on gray paper, that's how bad the problem is. 

Readability ought to be the highest goal of any Bible edition. Factors detracting from readability should be eliminated, or at least minimized. It is tragic when an excellent, readable page layout (like the NRSV Standard Edition) is marred by the quality of paper it's printed on. As Iyov writes:

"There are many problems with Bibles being produced today: poor bindings, poor editing, overly small margins, and poor typesetting. But the biggest problem by far is Bible paper bleedthrough."

But when it comes to recommending Bibles that don't have this problem, I'm at a loss. What's acceptable to me may not work for you -- and "acceptable" as a standard is far from ideal. 

So what's happened? In my far from expert opinion, there are a couple of factors contributing to the problem. Quality paper has become more expensive to source. Inside publishing, there's also a received wisdom about what consumers are willing to pay. Remember that LA Times glimpse inside the Zondervan marketing meeting quoted in my Bible Reader's Manifesto? The VP of production "wonders if customers will pay so much more for the anniversary edition" of the NIV Study Bible. The price is $120. Better paper means increased cost, so either the publisher cuts his margin, or the consumer pays more. And there's another dynamic to consider, one that we see here at Bible Design Blog often enough: the more the consumer pays, the higher his expectation that every detail will be uniform, regular, perfect. Boosting quality above the "acceptable" level might be a hard sell in a for-profit enterprise. Most consumers don't demand it, and the ones who do are notoriously hard to please.

Another factor is the current rage for thin Bibles. My brown goatskin Pitt Minion (pictured at left) is only slightly thicker than the 256 page trade paperback book underneath, but it includes the entire Bible, reference notes, a concordance, and even maps. It isn't as tall as Rethinking Worldview, and isn't as wide, either. The average hardback novel pretty much dwarfs even a full-size reference Bible, and certain works of fantasy and science fiction give Study Bibles a run for their money. But let's face it, there are a lot more words in the Bible than in your average novel or work of nonfiction. How do they get Bibles to be so small? The equation is pretty simple: tiny type, thin paper. And the smaller you want your Bible to be, the tinier the type and the thinner the paper (within reason). So if your dream Bible is a large print thinline on perfectly opaque paper . . . get used to disappointment.

Still, I think it's important that we let publishers know we want better paper. The more demand we express, the easier it becomes for designers and production people to make the case for quality in-house. Thanks to fountain pen enthusiasts, notebook publishers know that when they put out a new product, a bunch of bloggers are going to write on the pages and post photos of the reverse side. This knowledge doesn't always result in better paper being used, but it doesn't hurt. I haven't always done a good job on this; I'll try to do better in the future. In the meantime, I encourage those of you with an eye for paper to post your feedback to my reviews. The commentary is often more enlightening than the post itself!

Having said all this, what happens when you're stuck with grayish, see-through paper? One thing I've learned from photography is that lighting makes a difference. Depending on the angle, bright light seems either to increase the whiteness of the page or magnify its translucence. If you have trouble with bleed-through, sit near a window or a reading lamp, or go read outside. If you're really desperate, slide a piece of white copy paper under the page you're reading. This will keep underlying pages from showing through, and might also make the one you're reading appear whiter. I admit, though, it's a frustrating workaround. Nelson used to include magnifying cards with their super-small print Bibles; I hate to think publishers now need to supply white cards, but there it is.

To make a long story short, Bible paper is a problem, one I don't see going away anytime soon. As Iyov illustrates, whether I rave about something or not, the photos don't lie, so take a close look at the enlarged versions (by clicking on them) to make sure something will work for you. And when you're dissatisfied, as always, get in touch with the publisher and politely let them know.