R. L. Allan Compact Text (ESV) in Black, Brown, Green, and Crimson Goatskin

The original Compact setting of the ESV was so tiny and hard on the eyes that, the first time I visited Crossway, they cried mea culpa when the subject came up. Just to show how out of step I am, the reason I brought the little Bible up was to lavish praise on its portability. I've always been a fan of tiny Bibles. Remember the snap-closure Bibles they used to sell that were so small they came with magnifying glasses? Normal people saw this and thought, "Something has gone terribly wrong in the world." Me, I was delighted. In an anticipation of my future life as a Bible design blogger, my first question was whether, if you tried these things out in the sunlight, the pages would burst into flame.

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Crossway replaced the original setting with the Deluxe Compact, which featured darker and larger print at the expense of a slightly larger overall footprint. I liked the result so much that I had one rebound in tan pigskin. Now, R. L. Allan has come out with line of exquisitely bound editions of the text setting, available in four colors: black, brown and crimson Highland goatskin, and (a new addition to the line) sea-green Alhambra goatskin. Now called the Compact Text ESV, they are available from R. L. Allan direct and at EvangelicalBible.com

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Featuring the revised 2011 ESV text, these Bibles start with Crossway's standard text block, which is printed in China. The paper appears off-white, especially in lower light, and there is noticeable bleedthrough, particularly in verse passages. 

As you can see in the photo below, the Compact Text is a two-column, paragraphed setting without references. At 7 pt., the type is crisp but small. Make no mistake, if you have difficulty reading fine print, this is not the right Bible for you. No typographical magic exists to compensate for aging eyes. If you can handle the print, however, the Compact Text has a lot to offer. 

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If you ignore the difference in text settings, a good way to think about the Compact Text ESV is this: It's an Allan Reader's ESV zapped down to miniature size. You get the same range of features : the limp goatskin binding with leather lining, three ribbons, art-gilt page edges, semi-yapp cover, even the additional lined notepaper in back. Only the 6" x 4" form factor makes everything so ... cute

Later in the week, we'll compate the Compact Text to its obvious rival, the Cambridge Pitt Minion. For now, one anecdote that illustrates the quality of the Allan binding. When the Compact Texts arrived from Glasgow, I handed them one-by-one to my wife and asked her to pick a favorite color. Then I handed her my brown Pitt Minion along with the brown Compact Text. "Which one would you choose?" Like a sensible person, she looked inside. It was a no brainer: the Pitt Minion was much more readable for her. Handing them back, though, she asked to see the Compact Text again. "If it was just about the aesthetics, this would win hands down." She could hardly make out the words, but was tempted to choose that one anyway. Behold the power of Highland goatskin and three golden ribbbons.

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Because I received the black review copy a few weeks prior to the others, I had a chance to spend more time with it. Typically, if there's a choice of color, black doesn't appeal to me much. Without a choice, I found myself re-evaluating. The black goatskin cover paired with blue ribbons is truly elegant. Nine times out of ten, when it comes to Bible binding, black is blah. It's the knee-jerk, traditionalist wrapper, about as intentional as the scuffed black dress shoes at the back of your closet you only wear at funerals. Here, however, black is beautiful. 

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Since the Pitt Minion mates perfectly with my personal-sized Filofax, I wondered how the Compact Text would pair up. It's thicker than the Pitt Minion, but also shorter and narrower. I've tended to think of the two formats as roughly equivalent, but the Compact Text feels like a smaller Bible. As a result, things that carry easily in the hand along with the Pitt Minion feel too large for the Compact Text. This should help illustrate the point:

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The Compact Text (top) may sport some additional girth, but it's a good half inch narrower and shorter, which makes it feel substantially smaller. The Pitt Minion's wider pages probably handle better -- but then, that's one of the trade-offs when you sacrifice size for portability.

One of the things I have always admired about R. L. Allan's UK-bound ediitons is the level of fit and finish that goes into the covers. They remind me of vintage deluxe editions (like this Eyre & Spottiswoode) much more than they approximate their contemporary rivals. Refined without being showy, they exude old world elegance. Of course, the cover is only part of the story. A beautiful binding can't transform a poor text block. In this case, I give the overall effect a thumbs up.

I also appreciate the fact that, as the covers change, so do the linings: black for black, red for red, brown for brown, and green for green.

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Highland goatskin is a term of art R. L. Allan uses to describe natural grain goatskin. In other words, this leather has not been stamped with an artificial grain pattern. Rather, it's natural grain in all its wonderful, organic asymmetry is on display. This allows the leather to remain limp (the process of imprinting grain uses heat, which stiffens the skin) and ensures irregularity. The covers show similarities, but they also differ from one another substantially.

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The sea-green Alhambra goatskin cover, by contrast, features a much more regular grain, without the fissures and creases you find on the natural skin. While the imprinting hasn't resulted in a stiff leather -- handling the two types, most of us wouldn't notice the difference unless it was pointed out -- in addition to the regularity of grain, the cover possesses a crispness the natural goatskin doesn't. 

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Perhaps the best way to observe this quality visually is to compare the semi-yapp edges. The red cover, which was cut slightly larger than the others, curves more substantially and puckers quite a bit near the top of the spine. The black and brown are less pronounced, but you'll notice a soft, uneven look to the edges. By contrast, the green cover looks very clean and regular. 

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Perhaps this qualifies as splitting hairs, but people often ask me about the difference between natural grain leather and printed grain skins, so I figured I would chime in here. In my world, there's a place for both. The differences are aesthetic, not qualitative. 

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All of the Compact Texts come with three ribbons. The black and red covers have blue ribbons, the green has green ribbons, and the chocolate brown cover comes with gold ribbons. I'd be hard pressed to choose a favorite; however, while I could imagine the other colors working with a different shade of ribbon, to me the brown-and-gold pairing is ideal. I've never seen any color paired with brown that I preferred to this. Happily, a number of R. L. Allan's latest chocolate brown bindings come with these gold ribbons.

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The Compact Text ESV is clearly a niche editon. I can't imagine very many people embracing it as their one-and-only. Having said that, the fact is, you could. This would make a great Bible to travel with, a great everyday companion. I would bring it to church in a heartbeat, knowing the small size wouldn't get in the way as I juggled hymnal, order or worship, and whatever else I happened to have at hand. As you read this, I am traveling cross country lecturing at Worldview Academy, and the Compact Text ESV is the Bible I've taken with me. 

While it probably won't replace your full-size edition and it isn't as optimal for pure reading as the Legacy and Clarion ESVs, the beautifully appointed Compact Text is smaller, more portable, and up to the job.

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