The R. L. Allan website announces that these are "probably the finest Bibles in the world." Whoever inserted the word probably in that sentence should be nominated for the Nobel Prize for modesty. There is no question that Allan's produces the finest Bibles in the world. Allan's is the gold standard in fine binding. As far as these eyes (and fingers) are concerned, no one else comes close. During the recent Dark Age between the introduction of the English Standard Version in 2001 and the debut of Allan's Reference ESV bound in highland goatskin in the summer of 2004, I used to day dream about an Allan's-bound ESV. I would hold my Allan's KJV in Cape Levant goatskin, rubbing my hands over its cover and inhaling the wonderful scent of the leather and art-gilt pages, imagining that when I opened it the ESV would miraculously appear. (And I'm sorry to report that this is not an exaggeration. An improbable amount of my time is spent doing precisely this sort of thing.) Finally, the notice appeared on the Allan's site that an ESV was in the works. I received the latest print catalog and had the news confirmed. I remember showing the entry to Laurie. I wanted someone else to confirm that my eyes were not deceiving me. They weren't.
The best word to describe an Allan's binding is luxurious. It feels alive in your hand. I ordered my first one from a distributor in Canada, sight unseen. Inside are the guts of an Oxford blackletter KJV in the rather dated archaic setting to which the Authorized Version is so often relegated. But the cover was spectacular, unlike any I had ever seen. It far exceeded the standard of Cambridge Bibles, which until that time had been the sine qua non in my experience. Eventually, I tracked down the source, a Glasgow-based shop that keeps the tradition of fine binding alive, and started referring anyone who would listen to R. L. Allan's. This is what Bible binding ought to be, I said. It's worth it to spend a little more than you would on the cardboard catastrophes at the local Christian bookstore to get a Bible you will delight in for a lifetime.
But until the debut of the Allan's Reference ESV, I was in a quandary. On the one hand, I was extolling the virtue of Allan's bindings, but on the other I was urging people to check out the English Standard Version (warning them in advance that the bindings wouldn't measure up to their expectations). Now, I have no such qualms. The best Bible binding on the market is also the best modern translation available.
The Reference ESV is actually a little nicer than my original KJV. The cover is more flexible and the binding opens flat and displays an unparalleled limpness. Unlike Crossway's Heirloom Reference edition, the Allan's ESV is relatively trim and compact. The grain is exquisite and the imprinting stands out nicely. The cover is semi-yapp, which means the edges protrude to overlap the pages, and leather-lined. All of that is well and good, but the most important test for me is how it feels. I have Cambridge Bibles, for example, that are made of excellent materials to exacting standards but won't lay open on a table. The finest leather and paper is nothing (to me) if it doesn't deliver an aesthetically engaging experience of use.
And that's precisely where the Allan's Reference ESV shines. It is a pleasure to handle, a pleasure to use. When I open it and set it on a table, it lays perfectly flat. There is no arch to the spine, no stiffness to the cover. The Bible settles onto the tabletop with a liquid quality. The photograph demonstrates this quite well: with my hand on the spine, the sides of the Bible fall open and hang without any reluctance. It would take more adverbs than I have in my arsenal to explain what a satisfying feeling that is, especially in light of my years of frustration with so-called "premium" bindings by North American publishers.
The goal of a quality binding is not to look nice. The Bible is meant to be used, and a quality binding is designed to make that use more convenient and pleasant. I have shelves full of Bibles. In fact, I have boxes full of them thanks to the fact that the shelves have overflown. I don't imagine very many of them were designed and bound with serious use in mind. Since I have this curious obsession, I tend to look at other people's Bibles at church or in the classroom. I've seen more than a few that are in worse shape after a year or two of regular use than a fifth-century papyrus.
Obviously, if you're not going to use it, most any Bible will do. If you're going to use it, though, you want an excellent translation and a quality binding. Until recently, you had to choose between one or the other (unless you had the linguistic chops to tackle the still-radiant Authorized Version, in which case you only had to put up with abysmal typography). Now, with the Allan's Reference ESV, people who take the Bible seriously can own an uncompromising edition that will stand up to the test of regular use.