Streamliners and Complicators

My friend Jeff Baldwin, one of the co-founders of Worldview Academy, divides the world up into two kinds of people: streamliners and complicators. As the labels suggest, streamliners are always simplifying, always pushing toward greater efficiency, while complicators go through life making everything harder on themselves and everyone around them. Talk to Jeff long enough and you begin to realize there is only one true streamliner in the world -- himself -- and the rest of us, in different ways, are complicators! Still, when it comes to Bible design, I think he has a point.

As a design project, the Bible is nothing if not complicated. There's a huge volume of text to contend with, and it comes in a variety of genres, each calling for sensitive treatment. Binding all sixty-six books under a single cover is itself the chief complication. If you give each word enough room on the page, and each line an appropriate length, and if you allow each page an elegant proportion, and print the result on paper sufficiently opaque for comfortable reading, what you end up with is a massive tome. To get around this, you must either split it up into volumes or compromise somewhere else: thinner paper, tiny print, double columns, cramped lines. 


Above: Thompson Chain Reference layout.
Great for study? People swear by them.
A little complicated? You bet.

Now suppose you layer in another series of complications. Divide the text into chapters and verses, adding footnotes and headings where appropriate. Devote a column of space to cross-references. Break up long words into accented syllables for easier pronunciation. Extend margins for note-taking. Add charts and diagrams. Set off selected texts in a different color. The possibilities are endless, and there's a case to be made for each one. No matter how significant the alteration, no matter how infinitesimal the gain, I'm betting there will always be someone who's a fan of the change and insists on having it. 

And that's how you get to where we are today. The Bible has begun to look like a very expensive Swiss watch with displays for day and date, moon phases, power reserves, and Greenwich Mean Time -- very desirable complications, to an enthusiast -- but not so helpful (maybe even a bit of a hindrance) to someone who's just trying to figure out what time it is. 


Above: "Sorry I'm late, I was checking my watch."

That's why I think the most important trend in Bible design right now is the desire to streamline. Instead of offering more and more apparatus, the streamlining impulse wants to strip as much away as possible, to roll back the wave of enhancements until we're left, more or less, with the text. Instead of offering a Bible that's kind of helpful for a lot of tasks (devotional, personal study, scholarship, teaching, etc.), the goal is to optimize the layout for one task: reading

This is not such a hard thing to achieve. It takes real talent to design a complicated Bible in such a way that its complications don't overwhelm the text. All it takes to come up with a streamlined Bible is an elegantly proportioned single-column grid, an appropriate page size, a classic typeface, and a basic understanding of how prose and poetry are best laid out. When in doubt, refer to just about any Peguin paperback of the mid-twentieth century.


Above: Forget about mid-century, here's a recent Penguin paperback.
This is a man after my own heart. Follow the link for a great project idea

I've been writing about this for a number of years, and over time I've reviewed several editions that at least aspire to this kind of simplicity. For the most part, though, today's default editions represent a compromise between the extremes. They aren't nearly as complicated-looking as some nineteenth century examples, back when the old verse-per-line, self-pronouncing mania reigned supreme, but they've retained "sensible" complications: double columns to balance the tiny print, chapter and verse notations (now embedded in paragraphed text), sometimes book introductions.

This represents a lot of progress in comparison with the past. When I'm reading such an edition (like the Cambridge Pitt Minion, for example), I don't boil with rage or find myself baffled or blinded by the complicated design choices.

Still, I long for the day when every translation can boast at least one streamlined, reader-friendly format executed in a quality way. For me that means a single column, paragraphed text with a minimum of intrusions (discrete chapter and verse notations, no additional references), elegant proportions, good paper -- basically a nice, thick, hand-filling volume not too different in appearance than any other book I'd typically spend a long time reading.