Bibles for Readers: Three 20th Century Examples

Last year I posed a series of questions on the Bible Design Blog Facebook fan page hoping to pin down our little community's preferences. Everybody wants a Bible printed on quality, opaque paper, so what are we willing to sacrifice to make that happen? What I discovered was this: readers do not want substantially thicker Bibles, and they do not want multi-volume BIbles. They are, however, will to pay a significant premium for thin, opaque paper. (The number I suggested was an extra $25 for the text block. Some said they would pay much more, others less, but you get the idea: we want exactly what we have in terms of size, we just want the quality of paper to be significantly improved.) In a world of e-readers, which are super-thin, lightweight, and completey opaque, it behooves publishers to take note.

By these standards, none of the editions I write about below will prove satisfactory. Why? Because they are incomplete, either because they come from multi-volume editions or because the editors took it upon themselves to redact. However, from a design standpoint, I find each of them interesting. At least one of them I also find infuriating. Read on to learn more.

The Oxford Illustrated Old Testament (1968)
Vol. 1, The Pentateuch 
Printed in 1968, the Oxford Illustrated Old Testament is, as the name suggests, an illustrated presentation of the OT. It is not, however, a children's Bible. This edition presents the text in a highly-readable single column setting sans verse numbers, interspersed throughout with artwork. The style and qualty of the artwork varies, but clearly the intention is high brow. 

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As the opening pages suggest, the typographic style is quite elegant. The table of contents lists the artists whose drawnings appear in the various books. In back, there are statements of intent from the artists themselves. Some of the drawings left me scratching my head -- for example, a recurring series which feature somewhat abstract men in suit and tie -- so I have chosen some of my favorites. Perhaps I'm tipping my hand too much, taste-wise, because I seem to have chosen the more representational examples. No abstraction for me! 

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I bought this as a specimen, not expecting to spend a great deal of time with it. Much to my surprise, it drew me in. I started in on Genesis 1 with a few minutes to kill before an appointment. Before I knew it, Noah was building an ark of gopher wood and I was running very, very late! If you appreciate the King James Version, it's rather hard not to get caught up. Here, there is no clutter to interfere with your experience of the text. There are even punctuation marks!

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The Shorter Oxford Bible (1951)
One traditional means of condensing the Bible is to publish only a portion -- the New Testament, for example, or the Psalms and Proverbs. The Shorter Oxford Bible (published 1951) takes a different approach, anthologizing the most celebrated passages. While this reduces the volume's utility considerably -- you may find that the editors' opinion of the best bits differs from your own -- it does make for a handy little book. Think of it as a Norton Anthology of biblical literature. Indeed, the Shorter Oxford Bible was intended both for private and school use, and includes a primary and secondary school syllabus in the back to faciliate the latter.

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The text itself is nicely designed and readable. Personally, I find the organizing apparatus too off-putting, probably because I'm already familiar with the content of the Bible. This format, to be really useful, requires you to re-route your mental map of Scripture. However, as a get-acquainted tool for people unaccustomed to the Bible, it's not bad at all.

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The thematic sections are prefaced with useful summaries to orient the reader. I particularly appreciated the way the final section is organized in accord with the Apostle's Creed. This would make a fine inclusion into a church new members' class or any introduction to the Christian faith.

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The Bible Designed to be Read as Living Literature (1936)
This is the one that rubs me the wrong way. On first glance, you might expect just the opposite. Here is a nice, thick single-column KJV without chapter or verse indications. The paragraphing has been updated, along with the punctuation. So you get not just quotation marks by properly formatted dialogue. "But wait," you might be thinking, "surely those lovely old Anglicans who bequeathed us our KJV (not to mention Mr. Tyndale who bequeathed much of it to them) didn't use modern punctuation and formatting?"

They did not. Therein lies the rub. As Ernest Sutherland Bates, who arranged and edited the volume, admits, he had to tinker around a bit for the sake of readability. But why get worked up about that? "As if the matchless beauty of that translation lay, not in the diction and the phrasing, but in the profuse use of colons and semi-colons," Bates fumes. Indeed. Now I'm not one to quibble over such things. I wish translators would either do their work with proper formatting in mind, or be assisted by people who understand what a book is meant to look like. 

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But Bates went one better than simply updating the format. As the frontispiece proclaims:

In this edition the text of the King James Version is followed, except in the case of Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, where that of the Revised Version is used; the arrangement of the books is by time and subject matter; prose passages are printed as prose, verse as verse, drama as drama; letters as letters; the spelling and punctuation are modernized; genealologies and repetitions are omitted, as well as the whole of Chronicles, the minor Epistles, and similar unimportant passages throughout, to the end that the Bible may be read as living literature.

Um ... what? I don't mind the mix-and-match approach to translation, though it does strike me as a bit arbitrary. Arranging the books by time and subject matter strikes me as more trouble than it's worth, but again, I'm not bothered by it. To printing prose as prose, poetry as poetry, etc., I can say, "Amen." The same goes for modern spelling and punctuation. If only he had stopped there. 

But omitting geneaologies (one of which I'd just read in the Oxford Illustrated Old Testament without pulling out my hair)? Repetitions? The whole of Chronicles, the minor Epistles, and similar unimportant passages throughout? If you've read Bible Design Blog long, you know one of the passages I like to photograph is Ephesians 1, both because it presents interesting design issues and because it's never a bad idea to remind post-Enlightenment Christians that it's in the Bible. Well, in this Bible, it's not. Apparently the book of Ephesians is minor and unimportant, perhaps even one big repetition. If only the poor people in my church had known before I forced a series of sermons on that book upon them! (Tobit gets in, if that's any consolation.)

So no, I don't hold Bates up as an example to emulate uncritically. Having said that, what he does include is beautifully formatted. This edition has a fine press look to it. The text is set in 14 pt. Deepdene, a face designed by Frederic Goudy. A detailed note at the end of the book explains how legible the typeface is, and I can't disagree. The book was printed and bound by the Haddon Craftsmen in Camden, NJ on cream, laid-marked paper supplied by Perkins and Squier. The general format was designed by Philip Van Doren Stern. Here's the result:

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By the way, Bates mentions a number of earlier editions, noting that "probably the most successful of them [is] also the earliest, The Modern Reader's Bible, edited by Professor Richard G. Moulton in 1895, and published by Macmillan." I haven't seen Moulton's edition, but Bates says everyone attempting reader-friendly editions of the Bible owes Moulton a great debt. If any of you have seen The Modern Reader's Bible, I'd love to hear about it.