Cambridge ESV Wide Margin Reference: Black Goatskin, Brown Cabra Bonded Leather, and Hardback

More of the same. In most cases, a judgment phrased like that would be negative. Ho hum. Nothing new. Same old, same old. But when the object in question is a Cambridge wide margin, "more of the same" is high praise. In fact, anything else would be a disappointment. I've written about the Wide Margin Reference twice before: first, when it appeared in its NASB incarnation, and again when the NKJV hit the shelves. The big difference between the two was the addition of a line of stitching along the cover's edge, apparently to prevent de-lamination. Now the Wide Margin Reference is available in the English Standard Version, with three binding options to choose from -- black goatskin, brown Cabra bonded leather, and a gray hardback.


Above: The ESV Wide Margin Reference comes in three attractive bindings -- Brown Cabra bonded leather (top), a gray hardcover (middle), and black goatskin (bottom).


If you want a black letter text, choose either the hardcover or the black goatskin edition with black ribbons. For red letter aficionados, there's a black goatskin edition with red ribbons and the brown Cabra bonded leather. The text setting inside is the same as the one in the ESV Pitt Minion, only bigger, which means your favorite passages are not only on the same page when you switch from one volume to the other, but in exactly the same place on the page.


Above: The fact that the text settings are identical makes switching between the smaller Pitt Minion (below) and the Wide Margin Reference a breeze.


In addition to the enlarged setting, the Wide Margin Reference differs from the Pitt Minion in the obvious way: it has wide margins. Like its predecessors, the ESV edition features a nice, wide margin on the outside and bottom, and narrower margins up top and near the gutter. Ideally, a two-column text setting should have wide margins on either side -- a good argument for a single column wide margin, if you ask me -- but here there is at least enough room inside for tiny notes. The fact that all three of these volumes opens flat really helps, since it maximizes the usable space.

I've been using mine for several months now, and I'm happy to report that the paper seems quite good. Thanks to recommendations from readers, I now use Pigma Micron pens to mark in my Bible instead of my old ballpoint (though I transgress now and then). Here's an example of how the Pigma Micron performs on the page:

I chose an example where I've annotated the inside margin, so you can see how cramped it is. By writing in letters not much larger than the printed text, I was able to squeeze two words onto each line. Not much, I admit, but it's better than nothing. When I flip the page, here's what the ink looks like on the other side:

The underlining is barely visible, though you can make it out at the section break, while my writing is evident but faint. The paper, though thin, seems satisfyingly opaque in comparison with other Bibles I've used, so I have no complaints on that score.

While I liked this text setting in the Pitt Minion, I think it really comes into its own in the enlarged wide margin edition. The text size increases from 6.75/7 points to approximately 8/8 points -- not large print, of course, but certainly more comfortable to read. Since an obvious application of the Wide Margin Reference is for teaching, that's a good thing. Reading aloud from the Wide Margin Reference is a bit easier than the Pitt Minion. A 1-point increase in type size really does make a difference.

The same languid liquidity that made the NASB and NKJV Wide Margin References such a delight to handle is fully in evidence here. While I found the ESV Pitt Minions in goatskin stiffer than earlier editions, the wide margins bound in goatskin stay on form. When you hold one in your hand, it feels like its melting. You're almost surprised it doesn't splash right to the floor. Maybe that sounds like a decadent luxury, but I can assure you it's imminently practical. With covers this flexible, you can fold them over without any trouble, converting a large and somewhat unwieldy format into a handier affair. I love having my notes handy while teaching, but wrestling with a wide-open book about three quarters the length of my arm isn't very practical, especially when I only have one free hand. Folding the cover back, I'm left with a manageable form factor.

Above: More than an indulgence, the goatskin cover's remarkable liquidity means you can fold the cover back and convert this large format Bible into a handier proposition.

Of course, you won't experience the thrilling limpness with the Cabra bonded leather cover or (it goes without saying) the hardback. All three open flat, though -- which is priority one as far as I'm concerned -- and for those of you who want more structure holding up your pages, the bonded leather and hardback editions offer that. 

Above: Like the others, the hardcover edition features a sewn binding and opens flat.

For most applications, I'd recommend ... the black goatskin. A shocker, I know. I like the other options, but for sheer joy of use, there's really no comparison. This is the edition I've been waiting for since 2001, the year the ESV was released, and now that it's finally here, I'm overjoyed. Every translation should have a quality wide margin, because every student of the Bible should have a quality wide margin. It's as simple as that. A good wide margin is a lifetime companion, a study Bible you create yourself through dogged commitment. And if you're going to spend so much time together, it might as well be nice, right?

And the goatskin version is nothing if not nice.

Above: Grainy photos are bad. Grainy leather is good.
Above: The art-gilt page edges add some class, and the miniature line of stitching around the cover adds some strength.
Above: Inside the cover, some shiny, leather-like substance. I agree with the folks who wish it were all leather, but I have to say, as it is, I'm perfectly satisfied.
Above: The goatskin editions feature two ribbons, while the hardback and the bonded leather only come with one.
Above: The spine is gentle curved outward.
Above: Overall, a beautiful package.

Above: All three editions feature a section of double-column notepaper in back, a great place to record information you'll refer to often. I use mine for quotes, creeds, excerpts from confessions, and the occasional outline.

Cambridge seems to be sticking to its two format strategy, offering a variety of translations first in the Pitt Minion and then the Wide Margin Reference. It makes a lot of sense. They're both great stand-alone formats, and they work well together, too. At the close of my piece on the Allan's ESV1 Classic Reference, I offered some thoughts on which ESV is best, and how they compare in terms of size. My thoughts haven't changed since then. If you're after top drawer materials and execution, the Allan's ESV is still tops (although the paper in the Cambridge editions is probably better). If a compact edition is your thing, go with the Pitt Minion, and for all your wide margin needs, there's the Wide Margin Reference. In terms of size, there's a definite progression, as you can see:
Above: The Pitt Minion (top) is thin and small, but from the front the Allan's ESV1 (middle) and the Wide Margin Reference (bottom) look pretty similar.
Above: Things change in the aerial view. As you can see, the Wide Margin Reference is considerably wider than the Allan's ESV1, and the text size is slightly smaller.
Above: One ribbon, three ribbons, two ribbons. Compared to the thick Allan's ribbons, the Cambridge ones are on the thin side.

As I said, my thoughts haven't changed, but I do want to add a wrinkle. You really should have a wide margin Bible. Seriously. In my mind, it's non-negotiable, and it has nothing to do with binding quality or design know-how. A wide margin edition offers a way for you to engage visibly with the text. You encounter a difficult passage, you do some thinking, some research, and once you've processed your thoughts you record the conclusions in the margin, forever nearby for future reference. Over time, you end up with a marginal "key," a road map of interpretation that can be surprisingly useful as your knowledge grows and you make more and more connections between one passage and another. 

Maybe I'm romanticizing the process a little, but I don't think so. And you could obviously achieve the same effect by other means. But in my own experience, the wide margin edition facilitates a higher level of engagement, useful not just for teachers but for anyone seeking greater understanding. There are thousands of "helps" out there designed to assist the student, but none is more beneficial in the long run than a swatch of blank space at the margins.

In the past, I've mentioned my respect for hardcover Bibles. There's no law that says a "good" Bible has to be wrapped in leather. If I have to choose between synthetics and a good, honest hardcover, I think I'll go with the latter. Unfortunately not all hardcovers are good and honest. There are plenty of cheapies out there, rigid covers pinching together chunks of glued, low grade paper. They don't open flat, they don't feel good in the hand. The Wide Margin Reference hardcover has nothing in common with them.

If you agree with my rationale for wide margin Bibles, but you don't plan on using a wide margin as your "primary" carry edition, or you don't have the money to spend on a goatskin edition, the hardcover makes perfect sense. And don't think of it as a step down in quality. It's just a lateral move. 

The hardcover is appealing for another reason. I've advised several people already who were looking for an edition of the ESV to have rebound that the Wide Margin Reference hardcover might be the ideal starting point. The text setting is excellent, and your rebinder can trim the margins accordingly, giving you a nice-sized and unique text block to work from. The binding is sewn, it opens flat, and the paper is very nice. 


When Cambridge released the Pitt Minion, one of the options featured a two-toned synthetic cover that had the distinction of being the most flexible of the lot. Instead of that, the low end of the Wide Margin Reference is the hardcover. Sitting in the middle, where the French Morocco Pitt Minion resides, is the Cabra bonded leather wide margin. It opens flat like the others, but its cover is not nearly as limp as the goatskin or as rigid as the hardcover. I have a soft spot for Cabra bonded leather -- or should I call it a semi-rigid spot? -- and I also like the color brown.

In this case, though, I'm scratching my head a little. I mean, it's nice. But it costs the same as a lot of calfskin editions out there. Even if you get it for under $100 from one of the online discounters, that's not exactly cheap. If you want leather, I can't see not splashing out the extra money for goatskin. If you don't want goatskin, the hardcover is more than nice enough. 

So I find myself wondering whether a brown bonded leather edition at this price point is going to have much appeal. (You tell me.)

Above: A comparison of brown covers, including Cambridge's goatskin Book of Common Prayer (top), the Allan's ESV1 BR in chocolate brown highland goatskin, the Allan's NIVC in chocolate brown highland goatskin, and the Wide Margin Reference in brown Cabra bonded leather.

Above: More brown. Added to the stack (from top) are the brown goatskin KJV Pitt Minion and the ESV PItt Minion.

Above: The ESV logo is featured on the covers of the bonded leather and hardcover editions, but not on the goatskin.
Above: The bonded leather edition opens flat and comes with gilded edges and one ribbon.
Above: No leather-like stuff inside the bonded leather edition, just black paper.

The brown Cabra bonded leather edition isn't a luxury option, and it isn't a budget option, either. It is quality, though. In French Morocco, it might make sense, but I'm just not sure about bonded at this level. Doubts aside, it's an attractive binding. If you don't like floppy covers, the bonded leather is rigid enough to support the weight of the pages without feeling board stiff. In fact, it's only slightly stiffer than the goatskin covers on the ESV Pitt Minion. So perhaps the brown-loving, floppy-hating brigade will take to this option with a passion. 

"A foolish consistency," quipped Emerson, "is the hobgoblin of little minds." There's nothing foolish about the consistency we're seeing from Cambridge these days. The Wide Margin Reference in goatskin is a jaw-dropper, and they keep making more of them. It's a winning strategy. The Pitt Minion's the same. Together, they're a one-two punch, a dynamic duo that covers most if not all of the bases. One is great. One of each, and you're ready for most anything. More of the same, when this is what you're getting, is nothing to be upset about. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that we'll get more ... and more ... and more.

And I'm relieved after all these years finally to have a proper wide margin to commit my notes to. Which means the task of transferring all the old notes can't be put off much longer! If, like me, you've been holding your breath in anticipation of this day, you can finally let it out and get busy writing. Start filling those margins!