Like trying to hold water in my hands ... that's what my first experience with the Cambridge Wide Margin Reference Bible was like. I expected the goatskin cover to be flexible, but this was ridiculous. Ridiculously good, that is. Wherever it wasn't supported by my hand, this Bible gracefully plunged toward the floor, almost like it was wet. I half expected it to be dripping, but of course it wasn't. That's the illusion a fine, flexible binding can give. Though the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the translation featured in this edition, is often described as "wooden," this wide-margin felt anything but. It was the best Cambridge binding I've ever witnessed, and one of the best Bibles I've ever handled, period. The epitome of limpness.
For years, Cambridge has been a name to conjure with in the world of Bible publishing. They've been publishing Bibles since 1591, so they've had time to work out the kinks. And at a time when publishers left and right began to let the standards slip, it seemed that Cambridge was holding the line. Sure, there were disappointments -- stiff calfskin, muddled imprints, and so on -- but these were exceptions with Cambridge and not the rule as with most everyone else. When I first began the sisyphusian hunt for the ideal Bible, Cambridge was the first place I turned, and they have rarely disappointed. My favorite New Testament and my favorite wide margin are both Cambridge Bibles.
Even so, I wasn't expecting to be as impressed with the wide margin NASB as I was.
Putting the NASB side by side with my identically-proportioned KJV wide margin, I was struck by how "right" the measurements seem. A wide margin Bible has to larger to accommodate all the extra space, but it can't be too large or it becomes inconvenient to carry and use. The Bible is 9.5 inches tall, 7.5 inches wide and 1 1.5 inches thick. The cover is razor-thin and impressively supple. The NASB, new for 2007, sports all the familiar features: art-gilt edges, two black ribbons, a sewn binding, and a section of lined paper in back for notes. This is a red-letter edition, and the red is dark and crisp. The double-column text setting is positioned to allow maximum margins on the outside and bottom of the page. Although there is room along the top and inside margin for notes, it seems a little tighter than with my KJV wide margin. The type is set in Lexicon No. 1 -- a clean, modern font, which I find quite readable. Type size is in the 8 pt. range.
The ribbons on the NASB are thicker but narrower than the wide, flat ribbons on the KJV. They seem coarser, too -- though that might mean they're more durable. Fine as they are, the ribbons on my KJV are quite frayed at the ends.
A BIBLE YOU BOND WITH
I've already written at length about the value of wide margin Bibles, so I won't belabor the point here. Suffice it to say that the wide margin Bible is a great tool for students and teachers of Scripture. You use it and bond with it in a way that wouldn't be true of most other editions. Misplace a fine Bible bound in goatskin and, alas, how sad. Can't find your old standby, well-worn from reading? Good excuse to buy a new one. But lose the wide margin you've committed ten years of notes and outlines to ... well, that's a catastrophe.
The Wide Margin Reference is obviously a "nice" Bible. In terms of luxurious materials and quality construction, it could give any of the editions reviewed here a run for their money. For me, the NASB has only ever served as a reference translation -- something to compare more fluent renderings against -- so this one isn't going to be a mainstay for me. I'm excited about the prospects of a similar edition using the ESV which may hit the market next year, and if it's as well-made as this NASB, there will be much rejoicing in my house. But for those of you who do use the NASB regularly, this edition seems like a perfect fit. In fact, the more I use it, the more I find myself thinking, Hey, the NASB ain't so bad, you could really commit to this edition. But that's the goatskin talking. I suppose that temptation is a testament to what a great job Cambridge has done on this one.
DID I MENTION THE GOATSKIN?
Try as I might, there's no way I can do this cover justice. The surface is soft, grainy, and pliable. My first Cambridge Bible bound in goatskin was a Concord Reference, and it had more of a pebble-grain finish. This one is more irregular and veiny, which I happen to prefer. It doesn't have as much character as my Allan's ESV -- or the semi-yapp edges -- but leather is a natural product, after all, so expect variations.
The real story is the flexibility, as pictured at left. Every so often, I'll hear someone criticizing a preacher on television for bending a Bible cover back like that, or folding it over like a mass market paperback. The critic assumes that, in doing this, the guy on TV is abusing his Bible. It ain't necessarily so. When a cover is flexible, it takes to such handling naturally. I snapped the photo at left before I took the one of the NASB lying flat (top right). If I'd done that with your average "genuine leather" Bible, the cover would be bent or creased as a result. But this goatskin has the flexibility of, well, skin. It moves under your fingertips as you handle it.
That may seem extravagant, even sensual, but I'd suggest it's imminently practical, too. When you open this Bible, it stays open -- whether it's on a table or in your hand. Because of their size, wide margins can be a handful when teaching, particularly if you're one of those people, like me, who stray from the podium and can't even take a breath without throwing in a gesture. A rigid leather cover is a two-handed job. The weight balances oddly and it always wants to close. You can solve this problem in one of two ways. A smaller hardback like the Journaling Bible can be pinched between thumb and forefinger and voila. (If it were larger and thicker, though, there might be a problem.) Or, a flexible goatskin cover like this one can be managed with one hand. You rest the spine in your palm, curve your fingers around it, and the covers puddle on either side -- perfection.
A SIGN OF THINGS TO COME?
Every so often, I get an e-mail telling me how good Cambridge Bibles used to be. These are guys who remember back not just to the slipcovers with the groves of academe on the side, but to the shiny gold boxes with the black labels. Old-timers. Collectors. I understand where they're coming from. We have a shop in town with a cache of vintage Cambridge Bibles, and when I saw the stack of gold boxes my heart skipped a beat. (If you're in the market for a KJV bound in turquoise water buffalo hide, I can now point you in the right direction, too.)
But looking at the Wide Margin Edition NASB, I have a hard time believing the glory days are over. It looks like Cambridge still has what it takes, and their best editions might be still to come.