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Crossway’s physical Bible design: perfection not yet reached

January 17, 2012

When a man with such excellent taste as Mark Bertrand gets excited about a Bible, I take notice.  And Mark is clearly excited by a new Bible design:  the Single Column Legacy ESV.  I bought the TrueTone Brown/Cordovan “Timeless” Design, which is currently available at $31.49 at Amazon.  Here are some of the things Mark and Randy Jahns, VP of Sales for Crossway, say about the Bible in Mark’s blog post:

Jahns:  The original project was conceived under the working title of “Reader’s Thinline Bible.” The goal was to create a single-column, text-only, reader’s edition that focused on an inviting readable page and beautiful design.   Our Bible typesetter relied heavily on Canadian typesetter Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style as he developed the page design. Essentially, we tried to follow the “Renaissance Ideal” or “perfect page” layout. This layout refers to a set of principles called the “canons of page construction” that all focus around a 2:3 ration of page geometry….

Bertrand: For a lot of people in the Bible Design Blog community, this looks like the one we’ve been waiting for….

Jahns:  One of the things you can’t see in the sample PDFs is the effect of the “line on line” typesetting, which we use for the Single Column Legacy and several other ESV Bible editions.  To achieve this, we employ a set typesetting grid, which allocates a full line of space for each line of Bible text.  This effectively “lines up” each line of Bible text with a line of text on the opposite side of the page. This eliminates some of the show-through and helps make the printed page look cleaner.  It also increases the readability and visual appeal….

Bertrand:  Can you fill out the colophon on the Legacy ESV for us?

Jahns:  …Font: Lexicon, 9 pt / 10.75 pt; Paper: 36 gsm Thincoat Plus….

Bertrand:  Might there ever be a dedicated wide margin edition? …A hardcover edition?

Jahns:  …These options are not currently on the schedule….

Bertrand:   You’ve set a fine standard in Bible publishing, and with the Single Column Legacy ESV, it appears you may have done some of your best work yet.

(In this review, I will not comment on the ESV translation itself, but will simply restrict my comments to issues of book design for the Single Column Legacy ESV [SCL-ESV].)

On paper, this should be an outstanding ESV.  But it is far from perfect, and indeed, is hardly even the nicest ESV I have seen to date.  I would say that the ESVs from Cambridge University Press (in particular, the Pitt Minion, Wide Margin, and especially the Clarion designs) are much better (albeit at a considerably higher price.)  The basic problem with the Crossway SCL-ESV is that it can’t make up its mind on what it is – a wide margin Bible, a reading Bible, or a thinline Bible.

The paper itself is thinline paper.  Thincoat is used for thinline Bibles and 36 gsm (gsm = an unofficial abbreviation for grams per square meter) is one of the thinnest versions of thincoat available.  Typical thin “Bible paper” might be 40 gsm or 45 gsm.  Typical paper that you may use in a photocopy machine (20lb paper) is typically 75 gsm.  Paper in a fine book could be 100-200 gsm (or even more for some art books).  The result is that the opacity of this paper is similar to that of thinline Bible, and like a thinline Bible, it is hard to write in it.

It is true that by using a typesetting grid, the lines on the paper line up on both sides, but this is not uncommon for high-end Bibles.   For example, one of the Bibles I used as a comparison, the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB-RSV) Extended Edition RSV (1977) (still in print in hardcover and leather), uses the same feature, as do most Cambridge Bibles I have seen.

The SCL-ESV uses nine-point Lexicon while the NOAB-RSV  uses ten-point Times Roman (or some similar font).  The interline spacing makes them both have about a similar number of lines per vertical inch, but the skinnier and smaller Lexicon is more bunched-up horizontally.  To me, it makes the text less comfortable to read.  The SCL-ESV is laid out in a single column, but the column width is a bit too long for me for my taste.  At about 70 characters per line, the single column format of the SCL-ESV should in theory be nearly perfect for reading (it is widely claimed that 66 characters per line is the most readable text) but somehow it seems to me to be too scrunched.  The wide margins add to the illusion, making the text seem more cluttered than it really is.

The oddest thing about the SCL-ESV is that it is essentially a wide-margin Bible (with margins of an 1.2 inches on the bottom and outer margin and .75 inches on the top) and yet it is on such thin paper that it is hard to write on it without bleed through.   (In my experience, most users of wide-margin Bibles prefer thicker paper.  Also, since some users of wide-margin Bibles prefer hardcover, the absence of the publication in that binding is also unfortunate.)

It may be a matter of taste, but I found the section headings (in the outer margin, as if in a textbook) to be distracting.  I was also puzzled by the inclusion of a mini-concordance (72 pages) in what is essentially a thinline format.

Especially disastrous is the laying out of textual notes in the SCL-ESV – they are printed in a tiny sans-serif font with very poor readability.

For me, the SCL-ESV most shined in its layout of poetic passages – with those wide margins and clear separations between stanzas, it really looks like poetry.

While the SCL-ESV is a huge step forward in book design for Crossway, it cannot compare with classic beautifully typeset Bibles (such as one can find in the King James) or even many editions from Cambridge University Press.  For me, the NOAB-RSV is much more readable than the Crossway, although their textblock dimensions are similar (the NOAB-RSV is a bit thicker, with a textblock width of about 1.4” as opposed to the 1.2” textblock of the SCL0ESV, although the NOAB-RSV also contains a lot more material – an extended apocrypha, notes, more maps, supplementary materials).

Two final comparisons:  today’s mail also brought me a copy of Harvard University Press’s new Annotated Emerson, a particularly handsome book.  This is certainly an apples and oranges comparison (not least because the Harvard volume is physically larger while having much less text – less than 600 pages – and being in color), but I cannot help but notice how much more readable the Harvard volume is than the Crossway volume.  Another comparison – I took out my old copy of Oxford’s ESV with Apocrypha and that was also more readable than the the new ESV-SCL, even though the Oxford volume “breaks the readability rules” by using a sans-serif font and double-column format.  I simply do not think that Crossway’s book use superior typesetting.

Now of course, my opinion is subjective, but I would like to caution a potential purchaser to seek out the SCL–ESV volume in the library, a friend’s collection, or the bookstore before buying this volume.  It seems to me that by trying to simultaneously be a thinline, a reading Bible, and wide-margin Bible, the SCL-ESV has turned out to be something of a Frankenstein design.  If the ESV is your favorite translation, I would check out options from Cambridge and Oxford before buying this volume.

(A postscript:  The ESV is not my favorite Bible translation, and I have a lot of concerns about the design of this SCL-ESV edition.  However, I continue to be impressed with how well Crossway supports its Bible translation.  For example, I note that Crossway will be publishing a diglot Old Testament with the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia [BHS] text facing the ESV translation.  While Jewish diglot Bibles are common, Christian diglot Bibles are more scarce – and I cannot right now recall any diglot that used the BHS page with full apparatus.  Interestingly, this volume is appearing before an ESV-Greek New Testament diglot – perhaps because there already is a perfectly serviceable NA27-RSV diglot.)

7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 18, 2012 12:59 pm

    Outstanding review. Your mention of to-be-published “diglot Old Testament” makes me interested in purchasing that one. With a diglot, there are questions about format, and with ESV reliance on “the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Syriac Peshitta, the Latin Vulgate” for its Old Testament, one hopes that footnotes will be retained. The note on the other texts is online at:

    And the salient paragraph:

    The ESV is based on the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible as found in Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (2nd ed., 1983), and on the Greek text in the 1993 editions of the Greek New Testament (4th corrected ed.), published by the United Bible Societies (UBS), and Novum Testamentum Graece (27th ed.), edited by Nestle and Aland. The currently renewed respect among Old Testament scholars for the Masoretic text is reflected in the ESV’s attempt, wherever possible, to translate difficult Hebrew passages as they stand in the Masoretic text rather than resorting to emendations or to finding an alternative reading in the ancient versions. In exceptional, difficult cases, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Syriac Peshitta, the Latin Vulgate, and other sources were consulted to shed possible light on the text, or, if necessary, to support a divergence from the Masoretic text. Similarly, in a few difficult cases in the New Testament, the ESV has followed a Greek text different from the text given preference in the UBS/Nestle-Aland 27th edition. In this regard the footnotes that accompany the ESV text are an integral part of the ESV translation, informing the reader of textual variations and difficulties and showing how these have been resolved by the ESV translation team. In addition to this, the footnotes indicate significant alternative readings and occasionally provide an explanation for technical terms or for a difficult reading in the text. Throughout, the translation team has benefited greatly from the massive textual resources that have become readily available recently, from new insights into biblical laws and culture, and from current advances in Hebrew and Greek lexicography and grammatical understanding.

  2. January 18, 2012 1:04 pm

    Of the course, the apparatus of the BHS also incorporates a wide variety of witnesses as well; most likely all of the witnesses/variants considered by the ESV.

  3. January 18, 2012 5:13 pm

    Ahem. I must point out the NET diglot, which has a larger font (in a larger book, true) and which for all its imperfections (caveat lector in all things, but especially bible commentary) has a ton of useful info between two covers, discussion of many textual critical problems RSV/NA27 leaves to a companion volume (admittedly a standard work).

    We won’t go into electronic resources, the best if less elegant solution for carrying a library with you, including loads of textual critical reference works.

    As for ESV/BHS diglot: darn, do I now have to buy an ESV? (we all have our biases)

  4. January 18, 2012 6:08 pm

    Chuck: The thing about the NET diglot is that it is an abridged version of the NET, which somehow suggests that one needs to have two books to keep track of it all.

    More seriously, I find the phenomenon of printed versions of the NET to be amusing, since the work was obviously inspired by electronic access (and the model of hyperlinking). It seems to me that the editors intended the NET to primarily be used electronically, and the books are just an afterthought. (They certainly have not done a very good job of distributing the books through traditional channels: I have never seen a NET Bible in a bookstore; for a while it could not be ordered through Amazon; and the diglot is STILL not available from Amazon.)

    Which brings me to another point — whatever happened to the planned Oxford Octapla New Testament — presumably the successor to the invaluable Precise Parallel New Testament? I recall there was supposed to be one that had the Greek and a number of translations including both the NET and the NET notes. Do you remember this?

  5. January 18, 2012 6:18 pm

    Oops. Wrong hyperlink up there, eh? Mea culpa. I need an editor but can’t afford one.

    I remember that Oxford NT, but I gave up. I fear something happened to John Kohlenberger. It might simply be Oxford’s lack of support for their excellent editions at play, though. As I say daily, “In this economy…”

  6. January 18, 2012 6:32 pm

    Kohlenberger is still producing books. Our friend Tim just reviewed his NABRE concordance which came out this week.

    But a Google search also revealed this article about Kohlenberger’s struggle with cancer.


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