R. L. Allan Single Column Reference ESV in Brown Highland Goatskin

At the risk of being accused of featuring "all ESV, all the time," I have another edition of the ESV to write about, the R. L. Allan Single Column Reference ESV. This re-issue of the discontinued SCR format late last year has been so popular that I'm told they're either out of stock already or on teetering on the brink, depending on color choice, with a new wave expected this Spring. They're available directly from R. L. Allan and at EvangelicalBible.com. The one pictured here is brown, but black and navy blue are also available.

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If you're ever tempted to think of me as a "taste maker," the story of the Single Column Reference ESV should disabuse you of the notion. When Crossway originally released it, the SCR was the first-ever single column setting of the ESV. Needless to say, I got very excited. Finally, the Bible I'd been waiting for! Then the other shoe dropped. Yes, the text was in one column, but Crossway had made the decision to introduce another first: the first ESV not to be paragraphed.

From the mid-sixteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, double column, verse-per-line text settings were the norm. Every Bible looked like an old KJV (then again, most of them were old KJVs). Over the past fifty-odd years, however, Bibles have tended to be presented in paragraphs, the way other books are formatted. That was true of the ESV when it was released in 2001. I doubt whether I would have been interested in the translation at all had it arrived in old verse-per-line format.

So I considered the SCR's lack of paragraphing to be a step backward. What was worse, as an advocate of single column settings, I worried that stretching the SCR's artificially severed lines of text across the entire page would result in many forced line breaks. Not only is this typographically unattractive, but I feared it would undermine confidence in single column settings generally.

To make a long story short, I was not a fan. What's more, I let people know. After a few years, the SCR lapsed out of print and I didn't mourn it. When I heard R. L. Allan was bringing the thing back. I thought: "Why, oh why?"

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Did you catch the part about these things already being nearly sold out? That helps answer the question. Despite my antipathy, there has always been a loyal following for this layout. To understand that, you need to know a little bit about the problem the SCR was meant to address. The way the story reached me went something like this: a prominent pastor/theologian complained to Crossway that his aging eyes had a hard time with paragraphed text. While teaching, he would often lose his place, something that had never happened with the verse-per-line settings he'd grown up with. So the SCR was formatted to make finding particular verses extremely easy. If you've used the format before, you know it excels in that regard.

Now from my point of view, this is too much specialization. During grad school, I often witnessed my professors, many of them sixty and above, pausing momentarily to find a certain underlined passage in Dickens or Proust or Heidegger or whomever. It wouldn't have occured to me to break the text into numbered phrases and print special editions with each of these phrases starting a new line, numbers lined up on the left margin, just to save a moment's searching on the page. Nevertheless, what's done is done, and the SCR has proven very popular with pulpiteers generally for the way it makes individual verses stand out.

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The photo above illustrates the pros and cons very nicely. Note Romans 4:25 at the top. "Justification" sits by itself on a line, while the phrase preceding it is stretched across the page, introducing an excessive amount of space between the words. The same thing happens in 5:3 with "produces endurance," 6:1 with "ungodly," and 6:8 with "died for us." As a typesetter from my teens, looking at that paragraph is like listening to fingernails drag across a blackboard.

And yet, if I asked you to find Romans 5:4, you could do it in a heartbeat. And all that unintended white space gives the text some room to breathe on the page. People who love the SCR don't just love it because it makes finding verses easier. They think it's very readable, too. Partly that's the 10 pt. type, but I think the page layout contributes as well. Everything about it apart from the verse-per-line formatting looks good even to me. I much prefer this layout to an archaic double column, verse-per-line look.

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Nothing is so good that an Allan binding can't improve it. In this case, the SCR gets the full highland goatskin treatment: flexible cover, semi-yapp edges, a gilt line on the inner cover. I'm not sure which of the available colors I prefer. In photos, the navy looks extraordiarily inviting. If you prefer black, the Allan edition in that shade is anything but basic. These are attractively-presented, high-quality editions.

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I don't know the specs on the paper, but like the Allan Reader the text block was printed in China. To me, the paper resembles that used in the Reader. It feels nice and is reasonably opaque, though there is enough ghosting to annoy those who are sensitive on that point. 

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Happily, none of my original fears about the SCR came to fruition. Crossway introduced the flawed but promising Personal Size Reference some time after, showing their commitment to single column, paragraphed editions, and now the Legacy is out and the Cambridge Clarion is coming, too. Given that, I can appreciate the SCR for what it is, a specialty edition that has connected with a very loyal audience, who now have the privilege of seeing their beloved format in an exquisitely bound edition.