When I started writing about Bible binding and design, what drove me was my frustration at not being able to find a quality edition -- at any price. "Genuine" leather felt more like cardboard and even the deluxe Bibles seemed to fall apart with frequent use. Bonded leather was my bete noire, and if you'd told me I'd be singing the praises of fake leathers a few years later, I would have -- in the words of the King James Version -- laughed you to scorn.
But it's happened. As far as I'm concerned, there are only two options these days for readers who plan to actually use their Bibles. Spend a lot of money and get a high quality binding (like the ones reviewed here) or check out the ultra-cheap imitations. Give bonded leather a pass and don't buy anything that claims to be genuine or top grain leather until you've handled it. There are exceptions, of course -- Cambridge turns out some good bonded leather, for example -- but as a rule the wise options seem to be on either end of the spectrum, not in the middle. Which brings me to Harper Collins and the new NRSVs.
It may be a staple of academics and mainline denominations, but when it comes to interesting, high-quality editions, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) is surprisingly under served. Oxford offers a nice pocket edition, but that's about it. So when I heard that Harper Collins planned to release a series of new editions, I was thrilled. I pre-ordered two of them, the Standard Bible and the Go Anywhere Bible. One of them is a sad waste of an opportunity, and the other is spectacular.
BAD NEWS FIRST
The Go Anywhere Bible is described as "tall and slender," but that's only half right. It's 8.25 inches tall and just four inches across, but that doesn't stop the Go Anywhere Bible from being thick. You're not going to slip this thing into a pocket or purse. The more I played around with the Go Anywhere, the more I wondered whether it was really smaller than my Oxford NRSV at all. So I stacked them side-by-side to find out. For reference, the black Bible is an Oxford Pocket Bible with Anglicized text. The date on the frontispiece is 1998. (The exact edition doesn't appear to be available anymore, but here's something similar.) As you can see in the pictures, the Pocket Bible is quite a bit shorter than the Go Anywhere Bible, slightly wider, and slightly thicker. In the hand, the Pocket Bible feels much smaller. If I had to choose one to "go anywhere," the Oxford would get the nod. The production values are better, and so is the design.
The Go Anywhere Bible just doesn't feel right. It doesn't lay flat -- not even close -- and the printing impression is faint. That combined with the cramped type make it harder to read than it should. Also, the designers made a terrible decision is shoehorning a double-column setting into a tall, narrow format. What a missed opportunity! The Standard NRSV, which we'll get to in a moment, features a single-column setting, and that would have been perfect for the Go Anywhere, whose form factor pretty much demands it. Cambridge, for example, publishes a tall, slender NRSV New Testament that features a very attractive single-column setting. The Go Anywhere designers ought to have taken a look at that. Sadly, they didn't.
There's nothing new about using this tall, narrow format for Bibles, and I admit that the majority of them use double-column settings. This one, though, is a particularly bad example. Like I said, a missed opportunity. The Go Anywhere concept isn't bad, but there are better options, even in the limited NRSV market, for fulfilling it. The NRSV XL, a large print, large format addition to the line, also has a double-column setting -- albeit a more attractive one, judging from the page preview on the site. (See my addendum on the NRSV XL by clicking here.)
ON THE OTHER HAND
Forget about all that. As disappointing as the Go Anywhere Bible is, the Standard NRSV is such a thing of beauty, perhaps the most attractive single-column setting of the Bible I've ever come across, that all is forgiven. The genius of the design is well-illustrated in these photos, because the Standard NRSV solves a problem that plagues designers of single-column settings -- and I hope the solution is widely imitated as single-column settings become the norm. Prose is set in single columns, and when short lines of poetry appear within the prose, they're in a single column, too, in spite of the resulting white space. But in books like Job and Proverbs, where you have page after page of verse, the setting shifts to two columns to better utilize the space. It's a natural, elegant transition, as you can see.
Because the Standard NRSV is a hardback, it lies perfectly flat when opened. By covering the hard covers in faux leather (NuTone, they call it), the book is sufficiently dressed up for church use -- no shiny gloss, no tacky artwork. There's only one ribbon, which is unfortunate in an age where two should be the minimum, and type from other pages bleeds through the paper enough to drive purists on this point nuts. Still, for what you pay, I think the Standard NRSV is splendid.
What the Standard NRSV most reminds me of is a pew Bible. It's not exactly handy, but it is a pleasure to look at and read. If your church uses the NRSV, this is a nice edition to have -- and if you're only interested in having one for reference, the price and format makes this an excellent choice.
I can count on one hand the number of people I've met who are passionate about the NRSV. Most are indifferent, a few critical. Frankly, I find this surprising. From an evangelical standpoint, the NRSV has its well-known problems, but as an update of the RSV, it often possesses an excellent felicity of expression. Nevertheless, at this late date, it doesn't seem likely that this translation will ever break into the mainstream (as opposed to the mainline). The new editions from Harper Collins won't change that.
Still, like The Message Remix, I think the Standard NRSV demonstrates the fact that there are new, better ways to design and format the biblical text. While The Message Remix represents an attractive, "fashion forward" approach, the Standard NRSV offers a more conservative, classic approach. I hope that it will be influential in design circles, where the need for elegant, single-column settings is far from satisfied.