Adjusting to Single Column, Paragraphed Text Settings

Nathan writes:

Q. I have always used a double column, verse-by-verse format. However, I am strongly considering the Clarion. What are your thoughts about the format for studying? My concern is that the small verse numbers and paragraph format will make it more time-consuming to look up cross references and find individual verses for study.

My response

Great question. You'll probably experience an adjustment period during which the paragraphed text will feel more awkward, less efficient than what you're used to. Power through, though, and you may find (as I have) that single column paragraphed text is better across the board. You'll be studying the text the way you would a book in literature class, and you'll remember not just where in the column a line appears but how it's situated in the paragraph. While you'll still be able to use verse numbers for reference you may find yourself relying more on the words themselves, which I would say is a good thing. I've tried to adopt a more Book of Hebrews/patristic approach when referencing texts in sermons, and this format helps -- essentially, it's the best of both worlds.

Verse-by-verse really has only one advantage I'm aware of, and that's shaving seconds off when you're hunting for a numbered verse. The question is whether this is such a needful thing after all. There was a time when I could see the point, but I can't anymore. Using a single column paragraphed text may take adjustment, but afterward you'll wonder why anyone would have the text any other way. At least that's how it's worked for me.

Further thoughts

Readers can adapt to just about any quirk in formatting. Just look at self-published e-books. The formatting is all of the place, painful to look at if you have designer's eyes, and yet many readers don't notice, and those who do simply adapt. While I believe verse-by-verse layouts make reading more difficult, the effect is subtle. What I worry about more is the psychological impact of atomizing the text in this way -- i.e., do the divisions and numbers influence us to see the words differently than we do undivided, free-flowing text?

But if you're used to the dictionary-style formatting, if that's what you've come to expect the Bible to look like, then formatting the Bible like a book meant for reading can throw you. I've known people who, despite liking the idea of single column, paragraphed Bibles in theory, revert back to the dictionary style because that's what they're comfortable with. The easier format is actually harder on them, because of the accommodation their brains have already made to deciphering the format they're used to.

Something similar happens when the brain is used to hearing a familiar translation. A different one is quoted, and even if it better represents the meaning of the original, even if it is a more fluent rendering, you think: "That doesn't sound like the Bible to me." This experience of defamiliarization is good for us, I think, because we're forced to look at the familiar through fresh eyes, to appreciate once more the underlying original. But the fact is, while most of us adjust after a short acclimation, some never do.

Personally, I wouldn't dream of using a double column, verse-by-verse layout now that I no longer have to. None of the supposed advantages are real, apart from the marginally increased speed in locating numbered verses. That wasn't a big concern for the Bible's original readers, and the more I try to value what they valued over what's come to be seen as important today, the less I worry about "wasting" time re-reading sentences or paragraphs in search of a particular phrase. The less dependent you are on the verse numbers, the more familiar you have to be with the text.