The picture says it all, right? According to the official site, the Nelson Signature series is "bound in the softest, most supple and durable calfskin," and you can clearly see the result: a Bible that can bend over backwards -- literally. These days, the edition pictured (#2019) goes under the title KJV UltraSlim Bible, but when I purchased it back in 2000, they were still calling it the Slimline Edition, so I'll stick with that nomenclature. Whatever you call it, this is an excellent Bible -- and, I would argue, a historically significant one.
LUXURY VS. QUALITY
A generation or two ago, the fact that a Bible was printed on India paper with a sewn binding and a calf or goatskin binding would have signaled quality. Today, quality has been redefined as a luxury. We pay a premium to get what it would have been unthinkable to omit not too many years back -- and if we do pay, there's always the chance a well-meaning brother will come along and denounce us for our extravagance. So we're left with a strange paradox. By traditional standards, most of the Bibles available to us are shoddy productions, but saying so makes us seem superficial.
I can't put my finger on when the decline happened, or what prompted it. My account of Bible history in the past fifteen years is more biographical than definitive. All I know is this: in the early 90s, I decided to buy a new Bible, and because I'd recently taken an interest in bookbinding, I paid more attention than ever before to the details. Living in the fourth largest city in the United States, I figured I'd have plenty of options to choose from. Instead, in bookstore after bookstore, I found the same tired options. Bonded leather was the mainstay and genuine leather the upgrade. It was like walking into a restaurant and being told that most people eat the "meat product," but some choose to splurge on "genuine meat." Really? What sort of meat? From which animal precisely? Nobody knew, and there was no kitchen in back at which to inquire. Eventually, I found a bookseller with a Cambridge catalog behind the counter, and ordered a wide-margin KJV in black Berkshire leather -- sight unseen. A month or two passed, long enough for me to forget I'd placed the order, and then it arrived in all its glory. For several years after that, I'd return to the store, ask if I could browse the catalog behind the counter, and then take a chance on another edition. French morocco, calfskin, and eventually goatskin, but it was always a hit or miss proposition, because I'd never seen these things up close and no one else seemed to have, either.
For a while, Cambridge was the only option. Then one day, at a different bookstore, the manager said he had something to show me. I followed him to the glass case in back, where -- lo and behold -- the Nelson Signature Series resided. No angels sang. I didn't fall to my knees. But there was no doubt I was impressed. Finally, one of the major publishers had woken up to the need for quality. Only by this time, quality meant luxury.
When I look at most deluxe editions of Scripture published today, they seem to bear a genetic resemblance to the Nelson Signature Series. That thin, supple calfskin with its casual matte finish always says Signature to me, no matter whose Bible it's on. For better or worse, Nelson set a standard that has sometimes been rivaled but never wholly surpassed.
THE SIGNATURE SERIES TODAY
The current Signature line offers the KJV in two formats -- Pocket Companion and UltraSlim -- the NKJV in eight, including two study Bibles, and the NCV in one. They're universally praised. In fact, I've received quite a bit of mail asking why, if this blog is devoted to design and binding, I haven't said more about them! Let's try and redress the balance.
The first and most important thing to say about this Bible is that the cover is a paragon of flexibility. It's soft and supple and pretty much any other adjective you want to throw at it. But the superb limpness is more than just a function of the cover material. Added to this, the sewn binding allows the pages to simply flow. I have two editions with similar calfskin covers -- a Compact ESV from LeatherBibles.com and a Thinline ESV from Crossway -- and while they have similar flex in the covers, the binding itself is stiff (each in a different way), so that you don't get the same effect in your hand. Both of my Nelson Signatures, the black one pictured here and the tan NKJV I bought for my wife, have a similar limpness that only comes from the combination of a supple cover and a fine binding. I believe this combination accounts for the popularity of the Nelson Signature Series among pastors and teachers.
The interior layout isn't unique to the Signature. Nelson chose to use one of its familiar, existing settings, a double column design without references or notes, set in a clean, readable font. This is one of the things I valued about this edition to begin with, since Cambridge settings of the KJV tended to have a more archaic appearance. The pages are printed on excellent French-milled paper. The photo at left illustrates the amount of bleed-through. It's there, but not to a distracting extent. I find the two ribbons a bit short -- marking a spot in Revelation, for instance, results in a quarter-inch stump protruding -- but the quality is good, and after a number of years mine haven't frayed a bit.
TO EACH HIS OWN
Having said all this, I have mixed feelings about the Nelson Signature line. Sure, there's my usual preference for a single column setting, but I'll set that aside. For what it is, I think this Signature edition is fantastic, but I regret the precedent the series seems to have set. It's greatest strength is its greatest weakness in my eyes -- that matte-black calfskin. I love the way it feels, but not the way it looks. The fact that this dull-finished stuff has become the sine qua non of luxury today is a disappointment. It has a rustic, casual air, and from what I've seen over time, it doesn't develop a patina so much as it simply dulls.
Do I want to abolish the stuff? Hardly. But I'd like to see the major American publishers offering more classic options in calf and goat, akin to the higher end Cambridge and Allan's finishes. Instead, it's as if the only two options out there are the stiff, shiny, vinyl look and the deadly dull matte look. The refinement of the more traditional finish is absent.
To be fair, this is an aesthetic judgment, and I've spoken to plenty of people who greatly prefer the more casual, non-gloss finish. My criticism isn't over the Nelson Signature per se, but of the trend it established and continues to reflect. I'm told that Bible publishing is a relatively small world and the options are surprisingly limited at a result. Hopefully future designers will find ways to break out of the new mold and channel the tradition a bit more.
THE SIGNATURE LEGACY
I don't want to end in a minor key. Yes, the Nelson Signature legacy redefined the look of quality editions in a way I regret, but the real significance of the line is surely the return of quality. Cambridge is no longer a lone standard-bearer. Most publishers these days have introduced at least one quality edition, though I suspect there are plenty of people in the industry who still doubt the long-term viability of the category. Reading this blog will hopefully change a few minds on that score.
In the future, we may see an entirely fresh set of options. Bonded and genuine leather won't be the only choices -- in fact, they might not be choices at all. What I'd like to see at the bottom is the new polyurethane covers, only with sewn bindings and more well-designed covers to replace the current crop of kitschy, novelty looks. Above that, various calfskins, with goat reigning supreme at the top. That's my vision, anyway, and while the Signature Series doesn't charm me in every respect, I doubt the future I'd like to see would even be possible apart from it.
If you use the KJV, NKJV, or NCV, and you want a superb binding with a rock-solid guarantee behind it, you can't go wrong with the Nelson Signature line. My own experiences jibes with that of many readers here. We may lament the fact that quality is a luxury these days, but I'm just grateful that quality is still an option -- thanks in part to the Nelson Signature Series.