R. L. Allan Personal Size Reference ESV in Black, Brown & Red Goatskin

Nineteen months ago, I posted a very thorough review of the then-new Personal Size Reference ESV from Crossway. I liked it a lot, but still had a couple of reservations. For one thing, the 7.4 point type was pretty small, with a column width that stretched a bit too far. On top of that, the only binding options were a sewn genuine leather cover and a glued TruTone. (Later, that changed, as Crossway offered sewn bindings with the TruTone covers.) The review ended with a "wait and see" reflection:

I love the Personal Reference ESV, but I understand if not everyone does. For me it delivers most of the goods -- a readable, single-column setting with a clever approach to references and a relatively compact form factor. I’ve never enjoyed reading the poetry of the ESV more, and it’s never looked so good on the page before. All in all, I’m satisfied. Having said that, what I’m waiting on is a quality binding for the Personal Reference. It’s hard to commit fully until then.

At long last, the day has come. R. L. Allan is offering the Crossway-printed, sewn PSR text blocks bound in your choice of three leathers: black highland goatskin, brown highland goatskin, and a red goatskin Allan's has dubbed "Alhambra." Each comes with three ribbons, art-gilt (red under gold) page edges, and a semi-yapp cover. 

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Highland goatskin is a naturally grained skin that offers unparalleled flexibility. Some covers, like the black one reviewed here, feature a pronounced grain, while others, like the brown shown here, are smoother. This variation comes with the territory. Alhambra goatskin appears to have a printed grain (like the buffalo grained ESV3), so it has a firmer feel in the hand, but this is coupled with an impressive limpness, as we'll see.

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The Personal Size Reference ESV is a single-column text setting with cross references on the inside margin. If you can hack the small type, the formatting aids reading quite a bit. While a two-column paragraphed text is just fine, the width of the columns tends to force awkward line breaks wherever you encounter poetry. One of the advantages of a single-column setting is that the poetry has room to breath. 

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Of course, there are trade-offs. The reason two-column settings are ubiquitous is that they fit more words into the same space. The PSR features type roughly comparable in size to Cambridge's Pitt Minion, only it's quite a bit thicker. We'll do a proper comparison in a moment, but for now it's helpful to think of the PSR on a spectrum with the smaller Pitt Minion at one end and the larger Allan's ESV1 (which is essentially a rebound Classic Reference ESV) at the other. The PSR sits right in the middle. Not as ultra-portable as the Pitt Minion, but handier than the ESV1. To me the size (7.25" x 5" x 1.25") seems perfect for carry. It fills the hand in a way the Pitt Minion doesn't, but without the extra size of the ESV1. 

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For some time now, I've used the PSR as my daily reader. Is the type small? Sure. But I don't notice much anymore. What I do notice is the reading "drag" when I switch back to a two-column setting. The reading plan I follow is the same as the one found in the Daily Reading Bible. I removed the perforated schedule from that edition, and now it keep it with whatever Bible I'm reading through. Since there are readings from the Old Testament, the Psalms, and the New Testament, you need three markers to keep up with where you're at. Like the ESV1, the R. L. Allan PSR comes with three, which makes things easy.

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Style-wise, the Allan's PSR takes its cues from the most recent editions of the ESV1. On the outside the chocolate brown and black editions look like ESV1s that were shrunk in the wash. The ones pictured here are advance copies, so I should note two dissimilarities. First, the ribbons here are the usual thin variety you see on most Bibles. The actual ribbons these PSRs will ship width are twice the width. [UPDATE: This turned out not to be the case. The review copies pictured here have 5mm wide ribbons, while the production copies have 7mm ribbons. Not double the width, but an increase of about 40%.] Secondly, the semi-yapp covers here do not wrap around the text block at all, instead projecting straight out. Typically my Allan's Bibles arrive wrapped in paper which has the effect of reinforcing that curve. These didn't. I don't know what the production editions will look like, but suffice it to say, if your edges project like this at first, they'll begin to curve with use. My ESV Pitt Minion is doing the same, though its cover doesn't project as much.

While a Bible like the R. L. Allan's Longprimer (which will be available in dark brown highland goatskin this fall) has more of an old world look, with its full yapp edges, the ESVs are trim and modern. 

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COMPARED TO THE ORIGINAL PSR

If you compare the Allan's PSR to the Crossway edition, you'll see the footprint is slightly larger thanks to that semi-yapp cover. (I'm afraid my original TruTone is looking a bit beat up these days.) Although I don't have a photograph to illustrate this, it seems like the paper used on the current PSR text blocks has improved a bit from the originals. While it's just as translucent -- like pretty much all Bible paper today, regardless of quality -- the pages look whiter. Maybe my eyes are playing tricks on me, but that's how it looks. 

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COMPARED TO THE R. L. ALLAN ESV1

The ESV1 never stuck me as a "big" Bible before, but putting one side by side with the new PSR certainly put the notion in my head. They're comparable in thickness (in fact, the PSR might be a hair thicker) but the PSR is shorter and slightly less wide. As a result, it's handier. 

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Of course, the biggest difference is on the inside. The ESV1's Classic Reference layout features narrower than average columns, which chops up the poetry sections pretty good. Comparing a page from, say, Lamentations, you can see the difference. Of course, the Classic Reference type is 9.5 points, so there are pluses there, too. 

If the paper quality of the Allan's PSR compares favorably to the original, it also shines in comparison to the ESV1's Collins text block. Again, there's still plenty of translucence, but the paper looks whiter and feels a bit nicer to the touch. In both cases, R. L. Allan is binding text blocks printed by the publishers, so they don't have much control over this factor. The Reader's Reference Edition coming soon from Allan's is a different story, so if you're iffy about the PSR's type size, don't mind a double-column setting, and want a higher quality paper, that might be the edition to look for.

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COMPARED TO THE CAMBRIDGE PITT MINION

Where compact ESVs are concerned, the Cambridge Pitt Minion is really the one to beat. Nice goatskin covers that age well, an attractive double-column text setting, and the ability to spring open flat at a moment's notice, all of these make the Pitt Minion an excellent choice. Though it isn't nearly as compact, the PSR gives it a run for its money in several categories.

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First, the highland goatskin cover is pretty hard to beat. My Pitt Minion has softened up after plenty of use, but the Allan's PSR is like butter straight from the box. It also boasts three thick ribbons to the Pitt Minion's scrawny one, though you have to use your imagination in this shot of the advance copy, where the ribbon width is comparable.

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Inside, it all depends on your reading preference. Type size is roughly the same, but the Pitt Minion's double columns let it pack a lot more content onto every page, especially where poetry is concerned. For pure reading pleasure, though, I prefer the PSR's single column layout.

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Above: PSR on bottom, Pitt Minion on top.

Below: Pitt Minion on left, PSR on right.

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If you've been reading Bible Design Blog long, you know one of the things I really like about the Pitt Minion is how close the footprint is to a personal size Filofax. You can hold both in the hand at once and it feels "right," which is handy for taking notes. The larger PSR doesn't quite fit the bill here. It's not a terrible combination, but it isn't as perfect either.

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Then again, the Pitt Minion can't do this:

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RED IS THE COLOR OF MY TRUE LOVE'S GOATSKIN COVER

My admiration for red Bibles comes up again and again, and it's taken an extreme amount of willpower not to do a little verbal dance about redness up to this point. I can't hold it in any longer. I get a warm and tingly feeling every time I look at the red PSR because it's so lovely, and they got the color just right. As with the ink on red letter editions, red can go right or terribly wrong. In this case, it's a delight to behold.

UPDATE: According to Nicholas Gray at R. L. Allan, "Alhambra goatskin leather is taken from the Smythson range of luxury leathers." If you're not familiar with Smythson of Bond Street, click on the link. It's not a bad idea to shred your credit card first, though!

If you look at all the photos, you'll see that in different light the shade behaves differently. Bright studio lights give it a near atomic glow. Is it that red? Well, yes, but not all the time. Gazing at it during church over the weekend, with a ray of sunlight filtering over, the cover seemed to have just the right balance, a rich liturgical red, neither burgundy nor pink. 

The Eyre & Spottiswoode KJV I wrote about recently is surprisingly similar in size, and while the detailing on the vintage Bible is more luxe, the color is nicer on the Allan's PSR. Let's say there's a purple undertone instead of an orange, though neither looks purple or orange under normal light. Here they are side by side, the KJV on the left, the PSR on the right:

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BINDING DETAILS

Everything that's true of the highland goatskin covers we've seen before is true about these. They are thin and flexible, leather-lined, finely grained, sophisticated. They melt in the hand and bend over backwards. Reading the PSR, I can't help folding the opposite cover over (not bending the spine, mind you, just the cover) which results in a truly handy handful. I don't store soft leather covers upright on a shelf like this, but I can't help taking the photos anyway:

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The black edition comes with three red ribbons, a combination first seen in a limited edition ESV1 earlier this year. While I love the black/blue combination of the regular ESV1, I have to admit this is a classic look for a reason. The red/black contrast is very attractive. Unfortunately, it doesn't work both ways. A black cover with red ribbons is nice. A red cover with black ribbons isn't. The red PSR comes with dark blue ribbons, the same shade we saw with the black ESV1. I'm not sold on this as the ideal combination, but it works. (I'll say more on this subject in a moment.) 

The brown PSR comes with the same brown, purple, and green ribbons seen with its larger ESV1 cousin. It was an eccentric but satisfying choice originally, and I'm happy to see the tradition continue here. If you loved the brown ESV1, you'll love this one, too.

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In terms of flexibility, there's nothing but good to report. That's no surprise where the two highland goatskin covers were concerned, but I had my doubts about the Alhambra red. The feel and finish is different -- the Alhambra has more of a shine, and feels firmer in the hand. But whatever the highland can do, the Alhambra can, too, as you can see:

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Above: The black PSR is stamped HIGHLAND GOATSKIN, as is the brown.

Below: The red PSR is stamped GOATSKIN.

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To prove the point, I rolled the covers in on one another and snapped a few shots. As you can see, the Alhambra goatskin is very limp and flexible. 

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More importantly, the PSR opens flat. It doesn't have the uncanny springiness of the Pitt Minion, but it's excellent nonetheless. In this photo, you can see one of the advantages of placing the references in the inner margin: the text column is completely visible, without any words creeping into the gutter.

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THE RIBBON QUESTION

Before now, I'd seen two color combinations that worked: red cover with gold ribbon (illustrated here by an Oxford Book of Common Prayer) and red cover with red ribbon (illustrated by the Eyre & Spottiswoode KJV). The PSR introduces a third, red with blue.

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I have to admit, gold is still my favorite. I would have also preferred the inside cover to be red rather than the black-or-really-really-dark-blue lining the PSR features. Feel free to disagree. It's a minor point, and I know some of you have expressed love for the red/blue combo. I can certainly live with it just fine.

THE SLIPCOVER HACK

Not long ago, I devoted an entire post to strategies for carrying and protecting your Bible. It's not an issue for everyone, but if you carry your Bible a lot, and you don't believe in dedicated covers (which can put stress on the binding), then it's nice to have options. Cambridge used to package its Bibles in a clamshell, two-part slipcase that was perfect for this. Playing around with the PSR in my library, I discovered a hack.

You could make your own slipcase, but assuming you're not handy, you could buy a Library of America edition of Edith Wharton's novels. The PSR is a near perfect fit:

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It sticks out a bit, but that's only because my semi-yapp edges haven't curved around the text block properly yet. In time, I think it will be perfect. 

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AVAILABILITY

As of this writing (October 5, 2009), the first wave of Allan's PSRs has been slightly delayed. Inventory should be available in Glasgow by the 19th, hitting the States on the 26th. Pre-orders have been strong, and those will ship first. As always, they're available for order at Bibles-Direct.co.uk (£90.00) and EvangelicalBible.com ($149.99).

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