When Crossway released the English Standard Version in 2001, I was enrolled in a Westminster Doctrine of Salvation class with Dr. David McWilliams. During the course of one of his lectures, Dr. McWilliams mentioned the ESV, explained a little bit about its history, and gave us an example (Ephesians 1:4-5) of an instance where the ESV's rendering was superior to other translations. As the class progressed, Dr. McWilliams began to use the ESV while teaching, and I did likewise, acquiring the first of my many copies. As a translation, I loved it. My admiration only grew when I read Leland Ryken's The Word of God in English, which defends the ESV's "essentially literal" approach to translation while questioning many of the assumptions about readers that animate the more popular approach, dynamic equivalence.
My only problem was that Crossway packaged an excellent translation in a lackluster package. Although I admired the typography -- except the sections set in verse, where the ESV's narrow columns created unintended line breaks (a problem that would be fixed by a single-column setting -- the bindings left a great deal to be desired. Like so many modern leather bindings, the Crossway Bibles felt as if they'd been wrapped in cardboard. The leather was as likely to crease as flex, and the Bible felt stiff and dead in the hand. Since I had earlier acquired an appreciation for decent (or in modern parlance, "fine") binding, this was enough to make me cry out to the heavens in desperation.
So I took matters into my own hands. As soon as the slimline edition of the ESV came out, I sent one to Mechling Bookbindery and had them re-bind it in goatskin. Although the result was not exactly what I'd hoped for -- the elegance of, say, an Allan's binding was absent -- I ended up with a comfortable, attractive (if somewhat workmanlike) ESV. For a while, I planned another project: a compact ESV to be re-bound according to more precise specifications, this time with some additional artifacts of Reformed theology like the Heidelburg Catechism and the Westminster Confession bound into the back, something the Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (sadly available only in the NIV) later did. So far, that project is still simmering on the back burner.
By the time I heard about Crossway's Thinline Cordovan Premium Calfskin ESV, I had pretty much written Crossway off. Their earlier effort at a "premium" binding, the Heirloom Reference, left me cold. It was bulky and the examples I saw suffered from "fuzzy" imprinting. I expected the Thinline Cordovan to be more of the same. But I was wrong. Dead wrong.
Crossway's Thinline Cordovan is the best manufacturer "premium" binding I have ever handled. It takes some risks and they pay off. As far as I'm concerned, this edition alleviates the need for re-binding and is the must have Thinline ESV. (The must have Reference ESV, if you are wondering, is the one from Allan's.)
Let's talk about those risks I mentioned. The Thinline Cordovan is brown. It isn't the sort of burgundy color you associate with the word "cordovan," though. Instead, it is a rich, caramel brown. The leather is completely smooth -- and that lack of grain is a definite risk. When my friend Darrel handled his first Thinline Cordovan (before I'd seen it), he told me afterward that he didn't think I would like the smooth, shiny finish. When I heard those words -- smooth, shiny -- I gulped. But then I saw the thing in person and I was amazed. Another risk: the stitching. It's the sort of detail that some people would take issue with; it certainly doesn't blend into the background. To make a long story short, the Thinline Cordovan takes some aesthetic risks, but they all pay off. The result is a Bible that is unique on the market. Everyone who sees it -- and more importantly, handles it -- seems to want one.
One of the features I wanted on my project Bible was a leather lining, but Mechling wasn't able to do it. Imagine my surprise when I opened the Thinline Cordovan and discovered a richly grained leather lining! If you click on the link above and buy the Thinline Cordovan from Amazon.com, you'll pay about $100. But this is the one time in your Bible-purchasing life when you will actually receive a Bible that looks like you should have paid more than that. The picture doesn't do the leather lining justice. Finding that grain tucked away inside the smooth cover is an elegant touch. Whoever made that design choice deserves much more than a pat on the back.
Unlike the imprinting on the Heirloom ESVs I've handled, the Thinline Cordovan features sharp, eye-catching imprint that contrasts well with the color of the cover.
If you've hung around here long enough, you know that the real test of a good binding is how "limp" it feels in the hand. I expect a Bible to do two things: (1) lie flat when opened and (2) pour like water when I prop the spine up in my hand. Most modern Bibles, even the "premium" ones, won't do this. That's one of the reasons I think hardbacks are so popular with people who actually use their Bibles often -- and one of the reasons why a hand-sized hardback like The Message Remix impresses me even though I open it at random and invariably wince at the language. When it comes to flex, the Thinline Cordovan is impressive. Not only does it lay flat, but it goes limp and melts when I prop it up by the spine. I can bend the cover over backward, too, just as I can with the excellent Allan's bindings, without leaving any tell-tale creases in the boards. If you compare the "limp" picture here to the Allan's one, you'll see that the Thinline Cordovan isn't quite up to that standard -- but it's pretty good nevertheless.
Nothing is perfect under the sun, bindings included, so what would I change about the Thinline Cordovan if I could? First, I'd add an extra ribbon. I've grown accustomed to having two, which makes it much easier to attend to sermons that draw on more than one passage of Scripture. In the perfect world, I would also replace the current two-column setting with a single-column design, which I find much easier to read. Why a modern, paragraphed text is placed in two columns is beyond me -- I guess it's the power of tradition. But since the ESV is far from alone in this regard, perhaps it isn't fair to make too much of this point.
All in all, I would say that the Thinline Cordovan goes a long way toward redeeming Crossway's reputation. From what I've heard as of this writing (May 2005), there are some more exciting editions in the pipeline that might extend this triumph across the board. As far as buying advice is concerned, if you're only going to have one ESV, you might prefer the Allan's Reference edition in goatskin. Then again, maybe not. The Thinline Cordovan has a lot to offer, and you will not see another Bible like it. You don't get the center column references, but perhaps you don't use them much anyway. If you're going to have two ESVs, then it's a no-brainer. You have to get the Thinline Cordovan.