R. L. Allan's ESV1, ESV1T and ESV1 BR in Highland Goatskin

The past few months have been good to the English Standard Version, with the release not only of the long-awaited ESV Study Bible but also the Pitt Minion and Wide Margin editions of the ESV from Cambridge and the latest line-up from R. L. Allan's, too. My inbox is jammed with questions about them, and people are always asking, "When are you going to post a review?" In the case of the Allan's trio, the answer is now. 

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The latest R. L. Allan's ESV1 is a Classic Reference text block printed in China under the auspices of Collins, the UK publisher of the ESV, and bound with highland goatskin covers in the United Kingdom under the direction of Allan's, available in your choice of three colors: black, tan, and brown. As of today, the black (ESV1) and tan (ESV1T) editions are still available and the brown (ESV1 BR) is awaiting reprint. There is also a limited edition in black with red ribbons (ESV1 r), not pictured here.

ABOUT THE TEXT BLOCK
Let's pause a moment for Allan's 101. What is it exactly that this Glasgow-based bringer of goodness does? If you visit them online at Bibles-Direct.com, you'll find a variety of Bibles listed, some marked with asterisks and others not. This is because, in addition to selling their own editions (the ones with the asterisk next to the item number), Allan's re-sells Bibles from other publishers. A Cambridge Pitt Minion ESV listed on the Allan's site is going to arrive on your doorstep looking exactly like the Pitt Minion distributed in North America by Baker. Why? Because that's what it is. Only the item numbers with asterisks are specially bound by Allan's.

So let's talk about that special binding. Inside the cover, an Allan's Bible is a lot like any other. They source text blocks (the thick, papery thing with the words on it) from the various publishers who commission the printing, then have them bound to their own specifications. In this case, the text block comes from Collins, and it looks exactly like the UK edition of the Classic Reference ESV ... because that's what it is. There is, however, a difference. The Collins text block is printed with the words "Printed and bound in China" on the copyright page, but this is only partly true of the Allan's ESV. The text blocks are printed in China -- we'll talk about how they compare to the earlier edition in a moment -- but they're bound, as I said earlier, in the UK. 

This caused a lot of confusion when these editions first hit the market, as you'll see if you check the comments. If you understand the way the Allan's business model works, though, it begins to make sense. Text blocks are sourced from publishers, so where they're printed depends on where the actual publisher is having the work done. Allan's applies the binding, and it's the binding you're paying a premium for. 
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THE BINDING
So let's talk about that binding. It's beautiful. Highland goatskin is a natural grain skin, which means it hasn't been imprinted with artificial grain, a process that apparently involves heat and results in some stiffening of the leather. As a result, these leather-lined, natural covers are extraordinarily flexible, as you can see in the photos. They are limp, but not exactly "floppy" -- instead, there's a more traditional, structured feel than what you get with the matte calfskin bindings most publishers are offering at the high end. 

Obviously, tastes vary, but I'm a big fan of the highland goatskin, because I think it affords just the right amount of flexibility without getting unmanageable. Of course, the text block plays a part in the way the cover behaves. The ESV1 text block is thick and rather tall in relation to its width. When you put the same highland goatskin on a thinner but larger edition -- such as the Long Primer KJV or the new NIV Cross Reference (once again brown, which I'm going to review, is awaiting reprint) -- you get a more floppy effect. For this reason, I'd love to see what an ESV Thinline would look like with an Allan's highland goatskin binding. To illustrate the cover's properties, some Bible yoga:
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Above: The traditional yoga position (right) alongside a newspaper curl (left).

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Above: Yoga, like all exercise, is more fun when you do it with friends.

So there are three colors to choose from, and in addition to that there seem to be two general grain characteristics. Because the grain is natural, it will vary from copy to copy, but if my own experience and what I'm hearing from others is reliable, it seems some copies have a courser, more pronounced grain, while others have a smoother, more refined grain. Let's take a look at the colors and grain:
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Above: The black highland goatskin. My copy has the coarser grain.
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Above: The brown highland goatskin. This is the smoother grain.
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Above: The tan highland goatskin. This is also the smoother grain.

It may not come across in the photos, but the smoother grain isn't as deep, and the covers seem more light reflective than the coarser ones. You don't get to choose your grain, so it helps that they're both quite attractive. The color options are worth talking about. Originally, we only had one: basic black. Then the ESV1T debuted in glorious tan. As you can see from the photos, we're talking about that rich, orange-brown color sometimes called British tan. It's not for everyone, but I happen to love it and think it's a unique and versatile color, a great alternative if you're trying to avoid the "big black attack Bible" stereotype. 

I was happy in a world of black and tan, but then chocolate brown came along, and it glowed with near-confectionary goodness, living up to the name. Originally, I'd pushed for a brown option thinking it might be a conservative middle ground for people not interested in black, but not daring enough for tan. Turns out, you need a certain kind of daring for the brown, too, just to keep people from trying to take a bite out of it. 

For now, though, I'm staying loyal to tan:
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Of course, that's easy to say when you already have both. If I had to choose just one, I'm not sure which it would be. The brown is certainly tempting. And to be honest, so is the black, especially considering those exquisite blue ribbons.

RIBBONS
There are three of them, and there's a reason. Ever since Crossway released the Daily Reading Bible, I've been stumping for three ribbons as a minimum for the simple reason that three are required for the plan -- especially if you're using a Bible like this one, without the reading plan notes in the margin. When you see those three ribbons, think Old Testament, Psalm, and New Testament. Then it all makes perfect sense. In all three editions, the ribbons are nice and thick. Once you've tried them, it will be hard to go back to the scrawny little things that come in most Bibles.

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The black Bible comes with blue ribbons, a much classier combination than black on black. If you don't mind an aside, let me explain it like this. In one of his novels -- I think it may be The Club Dumas -- Arturo Perez-Reverte has one of his characters thinking that a gentleman never wears black socks with black shoes. He wears gray or blue. Now if you hear this and think, "But what could match black shoes better than black socks?" then you're not going to get the ESV1's color combination. If you see why black-on-black doesn't work (and I admit, it's a purely aesthetic thing) then you'll love it.

With the tan cover, you get three nice, thick copper-brown ribbons. The ESV1 BR stirs things up, though, coming equipped with three ribbons in three different colors: copper-brown, purple, and green. Now a Bible with different colored ribbons isn't new. Breviaries have had them for ages, with each of the colors carrying a different significance. In this case, the choice is aesthetic, and I think it's brilliant. Each of the colors "goes" with the brown, particularly the green, but together they're something special. As I mentioned earlier, you can also get the ESV1 r, which comes with red ribbons -- which is like wearing red socks with black shoes (i.e., outstanding).

DIFFERENCES WITH THE EARLIER EDITION
Since the text block is printed in China, one of the questions that people have asked is how it compares to the previous run. So let's take a look at the original ESV1T alongside the new one. The biggest difference I observe is actually an improvement. Search the site and you'll find that quite a few people complained about the wavy edges of the older text block. The photo below illustrates the issue well. On top, the original ESV1T, the irregularity in the gilding corresponds to the waves in the pages. 

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Above: The old ESV1T had wavy pages (top), but the new one is uniform.

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Above: You can see the difference in waviness between the old edition 
(bottom) and the new one (top), as well as the comparable 
level of "bleedthrough."

As far as I can see, the new text block is an improvement over the original. Even when it comes to "bleedthrough," where the translucence of the page allows you to see printing on subsequent pages, the two editions seem fairly similar. The paper of the older edition might be slightly more opaque. I've had that impression, but when I put them side-by-side and try to substantiate it, they look the same to me. You can look at the photos and judge for yourself.

Of course, bleedthrough creates eyestrain, but a lot depends on the level of light. After playing around with various lighting scenarios, I managed to take a photo I think best represents how the text block reads in ordinary light. Here it is:
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Above: In terms of opacity, these pages run about average. 
Bleedthrough is noticeable and might cause strain 
if you're sensitive and reading in poor light.

Another new aesthetic feature in these editions is the gilt line running inside the cover, a detail often seen on vintage Bibles, though not so much anymore. It's a nice touch. And it conveys something important about Allan's bindings, which is their attention to detail. When I compare them to other quality editions, there's a difference that's not always easy to put into words. Fit and finish is part of it -- the bindings exude quality -- but there's something more to it than that. Perhaps the classic style of these bindings is what I find so appealing. In addition to feeling good and wearing well, they suggest a care and attentiveness too often absent in our mass produced world. 

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Another way to think of it is this. As Bibles, they're splendid, but they're also impressive as books, too. A pleasure to handle, craftsmanship worthy of contemplation and appreciation. But I should be careful here, because whenever I extoll the virtue of Allan's bindings (or any other quality edition), someone invariably fires off an e-mail to the effect that, "I bought this on your recommendation, and when it arrived, in spite of all the money I paid, it wasn't perfect!" 

So let me say it right now. These things aren't perfect. And I know that at these prices, we're often tempted to think perfection is what we're owed. But the reality is, what you're paying for is quality, not luxury, and certainly not perfection. The goal posts have shifted so far these days that it's easy to confuse the two, since quality itself is considered a luxury. To spare you disappointment, let me just say that if you're looking for the perfect Bible, this isn't it. But if you'd like a beautifully bound, quality reference edition of the English Standard Version, this is the best option out there. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

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PLAYING FAVORITES
One last thing. As I mentioned in the opening, we're now spoiled for choices when it comes to editions of the ESV. So if you're hunting around for the "one," which edition should you choose? It depends on what's at the top of your list of priorities. If the most important thing to you is the finest quality binding, then I think your choice has to be the Allan's. Cambridge offers goatskin bindings, but nothing compares to the highland goatskin covers that Allan's provides. So if that's your single biggest factor, you have your answer.
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Above: Three recent editions of the ESV. Top to bottom, they are 
the Cambridge Pitt Minion in brown goatskin, the Allan's ESV1 BR, 
and the Cambridge Wide Margin in brown Cabra bonded leather. 
Which is best? Depends on what you're looking for.

If a wide margin is what you're after, things change a bit. Cambridge now offers three wonderful editions, available in goatskin, Cabra bonded leather, and hardcover. I'll be writing about them shortly, but suffice to say, if you're looking for a wide margin ESV, this is the best currently available. It has the added benefit of being the same setting used in the Pitt Minion -- nice, if you're one of those people who can remember where on the page a certain passage happens to be, since it means your wide margin and your portable are always "in sync." 

And obviously, if you're looking for something as small as possible without sacrificing references or readability, then you should look at the Pitt Minion, which I've already reviewed. No, the goatskin isn't in the same league as Allan's, especially with those stiff boards underneath, but I'm a big fan of the Pitt Minion's spring-open feel.

Here's another look, for size comparison:

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VERDICT
Obviously, you haven't been waiting for my verdict before buying, otherwise the brown wouldn't be out of stock already. But I'm giving you my verdict all the same. The new Allan's ESVs improve on the earlier edition and make an excellent all-around Bible. As Paul at EvangelicalBible.com has hinted recently, there is more ESV goodness coming from Allan's in the not-too-distant future. But the goodness that's already here sets a pretty high standard of excellence. 

I've loved the ESV1 since I pre-ordered the very first edition, and nothing has changed since then. We can be grateful our friends in Glasgow are putting so much effort into these editions. With references and three ribbons, they're perfect both for daily reading and study. If you're only going to have one copy of the ESV, this is still the one to get.