A Guide for Beginners

Q. I'm shopping for a new Bible, and I don't have a clue about binding or the different types of leather. What do I need to know to make a good choice? A. To keep things simple, I'll break the answer down into six basic points. I invite readers to add their own insight in the comments, too. Here goes:

1. A binding can be either (a) sewn or (b) glued. Sewn bindings are better quality and will last longer, but glued bindings are cheaper. If you've ever had pages -- or whole sections -- fall out of your Bible after use, the odds are it had a glued binding. If you're looking for a Bible that will last, get one with a sewn binding. Having said that, if you're careful with a glued binding, it can last a good while, too.

2. Today's inexpensive options are better than ever. Thanks to advances in imitation leather, there are a lot of cheap, flexible Bibles on the market with attractive covers and designs. Ten years ago, this wasn't the case. There are trade-offs, though. A $20 Bible will probably have a glued binding and won't hold up over time. However, because of the decline in quality of many genuine leather Bibles, there is no reason to believe that spending $50 or $60 on the leather edition is a better choice. A glued Bible with a cardboard-like leather cover is not going to last any longer than a glued Bible with a flexible, synthetic cover.

3. Hardback editions offer the best bang for the buck. It's not traditional, but a hardback Bible will lay flat when you open it. If the binding is sewn, it will last a good long time.

4. Bonded vs. Genuine Leather. Setting aside the new synthetics with names like "TruTone," "NuTone," etc., there are traditionally two grades of leather: bonded and genuine. Think of bonded leather as a kind of particleboard. It's created by "bonding" leather fibers together. Most bonded leather is bad, but there are exceptions. Cambridge's bonded leather is better than most, for example. Genuine leather is the real deal, but these days that's not saying much. The quality of hides seems to have declined, so that genuine leather covers are often thin and stiff as plastic. When you choose a Bible in person, you can evaluate the quality, but more and more people shop online, which makes finding a good genuine leather Bible tougher. Two copies of the exact same edition by the same publisher can have a completely different feel, so there's no substitute for hands-on examination.

5. Higher Quality Leathers. Because of the decline in genuine leather editions, a market has opened up for high quality Bibles bound in calfskin or even goatskin. These can cost anywhere from $100 to $200, though you can find deep discounts online. If you want a traditional leather-bound Bible that will last for years, these are the ones to look at. A Bible with a sewn binding and goatskin covers is truly wonderful. Unfortunately, paying top dollar is no guarantee of perfection. If possible, inspect the Bible in person before purchase.

6. A Name to Trust. The publisher with the best reputation is still Cambridge University Press, although many people will tell you that even Cambridge Bibles aren't as consistently good as they once were. Cambridge Bibles are distributed in the US through Baker Books, and include the following translations: KJV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NRSV, REB, and RSV. The range included quality offerings in every category, from bonded leather to fine goatskin. You can find a lot of information about Cambridge Bibles and how they're made online.