When Books are Designed to be Read

hen master type designer Bram de Does produced TEFF Lexicon, he created the world’s most expensive typeface (according to Typewolf). The only other typeface that emerged from his hand is Trinité, in 1982. While working on Trinité, De Does “studied different solutions to increase harmony on the printed page, and achieve better legibility.” Both works from de Does are masterpieces in their own right.

You can imagine my bewilderment when I studied the production details for Crossway’s re-release of the ESV Reader’s Bible Six Volume edition and found that the project was set in Trinité №2 Roman at 12pt.

This article is about a love of books, reading, good typography, and exquisite details. It is an appreciation of the minutiae that take a created thing from being mediocre to great. I was searching for a title to the piece, and I landed on When Books are Designed to be Read particularly because design is all about context. Books are vastly different than websites or posters (although they have similarities in that they all share a primitive purpose to encourage reading at some level). They are meant to be held in the hand and the thumbed through, page after page. Mistakes, cutting corners, and bad design scale magnificently over the course of a large published volume. In works of fiction that are consumed voraciously, these mistakes can be forgiven—they sometimes go un-noticed as we are caught up in the story.

Religious texts, and works of historical and cultural importance often take additional effort to apprehend and enjoy. They are important. They deserve a considered design treatment that can can scale well.

What follows will be my comparison of two such texts: Bibliotheca by Adam Lewis Greene, and ESV Reader’s Bible, Six Volume Set by Crossway. Both works render sublime treatment of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, and are designed to be read and enjoyed for a lifetime.

COVER & SLIPCASE

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” as the old adage goes. The cover definitely isn’t everything when it comes to a book. But it is important. Often a book’s cover leaves the first impression on the reader. It invites them to pick it up, to explore it, to come back to it again and again.

Bibliotheca’s gradient of cloth covers and natural, treated walnut feel modern and calming.

I really love what Adam Lewis Greene has achieved with Bibliotheca’s cover materials. The cloth is high quality, and the gradient of colors (from dark to light) bears theological significance as the story of Scripture unfolds to reveal the saving power of God’s Messiah in the person of Jesus Christ. The cool dark to light hues feel tasteful, subdued and modern. The natural walnut case is gorgeous and carries through the restrained taste that marks the Bibliotheca project as a whole.

Each volume of Crossway’s ESV Reader’s Bible is wrapped in luxurious leather, in a rich and handsome walnut case.

Crossway has chosen to take a much different approach to their Bible project in terms of the choice of cover materials. They do have a cloth-bound edition without walnut case, but their premium edition matches black leather, rich maroon ribbons, and a dark-stained walnut case.

Instead of bringing a minimalist aesthetic, the Crossway set carries a refinement and sophistication in execution that would feel right at home in a university library or study. The spine treatment, leather quality, and gold stamping all evoke an old-world feel that is nostalgic and welcoming.

PAPER

On the left, Crossway’s edition is being bound in Italy. On the right, Bibliotheca shows off its stone-based pages.

Paper selection is a critical component to any book project. Perhaps, it is one of the most critical choices. Every page of a printed project will be affected (both positively and negatively) by the choice of paper used. Here, the ESV Reader’s Bible and Bibliotheca are closely matched. They both chose paper of the utmost quality, with unique and enduring properties:

ESV READER'S BIBLE
Munken Premium Cream uncoated (80gsm)
BIBLIOTHECA
Salzer EOS Titan stone-based paper

The pages of the ESV Reader’s Bible have a warmth and creaminess to them—perfectly smooth in the hand.

The mineral components of Bibliotheca’s paper give it a slightly more textured feel, while still being neutral and opaque.

When reading large sections of Scripture, I prefer the smooth texture that the Munken paper brings. The warmth of the paper tone makes it easy on the eyes and a dream to read large sections.

PAGE LAYOUT

Two example pages from ESV Reader’s Bible.

Page layout is a crucial design consideration for any printed project. The proportions, type size, and typographic decisions affect the text and its readability in a clear, direct manner. Here, Crossway has chosen a classic justified text layout for the ESV Reader’s Bible with ample line-height that allows the text to breathe naturally on its own. Indentation creates clear indication for where paragraphs begin. Also, they employ spot color drop caps at the opening of books of the Bible, which help create visual transition between pieces of narrative.

Overall, the layout Crossway has implemented is solid. There are a few proportional spacing issues that Bringhurst would balk at. The primary one being the proportion above and below the text block are equal. Many classic grid systems and scale examples in printed page layout stipulate double the amount of space of the header in the footer.

This may seem minor and nit-picky, but the proportional layout of Bibliotheca edges out the Reader’s Bible and would make Bringhurst proud.

Three example pages from Bibliotheca.

In addition to implementing proportional header/footer sections, Bibliotheca also has subtle, right-aligned page-numbering, and no header markings—furthering its classical and minimal take on a reading Bible. Also the taller page size (based on the proportions of the ark) make it a little less easy to handle and hold but reflect a much more unique and human scale for reading.

Both Bibles have reduced the text down to what they feel is necessary to support a pure reading experience. Chapter markings, verse numbering—nearly everything superfluous has been stripped away.

TYPOGRAPHY

The typography in both works is stunning. Crossway chose the masterful Trinité №2 Roman to set the ESV Reader’s Bible. The typeface is highly readable and enjoyable at 12pt.

Adam Lewis Greene developed two original typefaces for his work: a neutral sans serif set in all caps for book introductions, and a serif typeface based on old book type for the main body of the text.

Bibliotheca Sans on the left, and Bibliotheca Serif on the right.

Both are incredible rich and provide a great reading experience. The line height on the ESV Reader’s Bible helps the text to breathe more which makes it comfortable at longer sittings. At the same time, Crossway has chosen to introduce minimal section headings to guide the reader (both editions have stripped away chapter and verse numbering). While sometimes helpful, the experience of reading is not as pure as with Bibliotheca which strips all that away. Even in the Psalms, Crossway left the Psalm numbering (1–150) in the text, which is helpful for reference, but lacks the pure reading and poetic experience that you have with Bibliotheca.

TRANSLATION

Bible translation is a tricky business. That’s why it typically takes scholars years and years to produce fresh translations or even translation revisions. Ease of reading, clarity, word-for-word, and thought-for-thought accuracy all have to be measured and balanced carefully.

Some translations like the NIV rely on a more thought-for-thought “mode” to guide the translation committee. The ESV (based on the RSV, and AV) has taken a more word-for-word accuracy “mode”—working hard to refine it over time to be more and more readable.

For Bibliotheca, Adam Lewis Greene developed a new literary translation of the ASV (also based on the AV). He and his team worked on modernizing some of the awkward thees and thous along with phrasing in places to make it more readable. They employed a scholarly team of consultants to ensure that translation achieved muster of Biblical accuracy. Having read the ASV prior to encountering Bibliotheca, I think he and his team did a fantastic job.

Accuracy aside, translations are largely subjective and cater to a variety of religious backgrounds, reading levels, and spiritual and academic pursuits. The ESV is a beautiful literary translation that is highly readable and very approachable. The ASV is not. Adam’s work definitely improved the translation and makes it more accessible, but at times it can still feel awkward from this modern reader’s perspective. Bibliotheca’s improvements are immense in this regard, but there is more work to do in my opinion.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of Bibliotheca is the intentional decision on how to translate the personal name of God in the Old Testament. Most English translations translate the personal name of God as LORD (in all caps). This can obscure the reality that God addresses himself in a personal way, with his personal name as the English word Lord can connote a stoic distance. Bibliotheca mitigated this by using the Hebrew tetragrammaton YHWH (without vowels) to convey God’s personal name.

Reading through the Genesis and Exodus narratives this way gives it a whole new color seeing when God chose to use his personal name. This is one incredible piece that I miss in most modern translations.

READING EXPERIENCE

Lastly, I want to speak to the overall reading experience of both Bibles. They are both excellent. They both feel like massive steps in the right direction in rendering the Scriptures in forms that are both accessible, modern, and fresh, while encouraging them to be read in larger, cohesive pieces.

I could go on and on about all of the little details I appreciate about both works. They are both magnificent. They both have such incredible merits that I find myself hard-pressed to choose between one or the other. I will close with some parting thoughts.

If you value a historic, library aesthetic, dark-hued wood tones, and an accessible modern translation, then the ESV Reader’s Bible is a perfect choice.

If you appreciate a more modern, minimalist aesthetic, with perfect page proportions, and a fresh bold translation, then Bibliotheca will absolutely change the way you read the Bible and encounter the person of YHWH.

Both editions have their unique strengths and weaknesses. Both are incredible works that push the design of printed Scriptures (and books in general) forward in ways we haven’t largely seen the past century. And both editions are designed and built to be held, read, and treasured for a lifetime.

I highly encourage you to experience these works for yourselves. Both editions have less-expensive cover options if that is a concern. Having a reading experience like this with the Bible is important. It’s easy to overlook in our day where experiences and products are discarded at an alarming rate.

NOTE: Bibliotheca and Crossway provided both Bible editions solely at my request. This did not alter the objectivity or quality of my review in any way.

Endlessly curious. ~ Currently @avohq. Previously @akidsbookabout, @meetcircle, @workwithopal.