I recently sat down with author and blogger J. Mark Bertrand (well, not really, I sent him an email while in bed the other night) to interview him about his efforts at the Bible Design Blog. This blog is devoted to showcasing and reviewing innovative design and quality Bible bindings. From the Bible Design Blog Facebook fanpage, he describes his blog as:
Bible Design Blog is a site dedicated to the physical form of the Good Book. Author J. Mark Bertrand channels his interests in the Bible, typography, and publishing into a wide-ranging consideration of Bible design and publishing.
Bible Design Blog is … A source for in-depth writing about the state of Bible design and production … Host to a global conversation about past and present Bible editions … A community of bibliophiles.
So with no further a due, here we go…
1) What got you into Bible design and binding? What was it that fueled this interest?
Because I grew up in church, I grew up looking at the Bible without actually seeing it. Seeing the physical form, I mean. The design. Only after college did it even occur to me you could choose your own edition. I’d always used whatever I’d been given.
By the time I was ready to make my own choice, the typography bug had already bitten—I came of age around the same time desktop publishing did, so I worked an old-fashioned Linotype machine out of high school and by the time I graduated there was Quark Xpress.
So I wasn’t just choosing, I was choosy. And I didn’t like most of what I saw. Like a lot of my readers, I “collected” a lot of Bibles, not because I wanted a bunch, but because I kept finding them unsatisfactory. As a typographer, I had the tools to understand why. It wasn’t until much later, though, that I started writing about it.
2) If you had to keep only one Bible in your collection, what would it be and why?
People ask me this question all the time, and I don’t have an answer. The one edition I’d prefer above all others doesn’t exist yet. Nobody has published it. When they do, I won’t keep it a secret, but until then I’m not going to crown any substitutes.
But since you asked so nicely, I will say this. There’s only one edition I currently have four copies of and worry it’s not enough, and that’s the single column REB New Testament. No, make that five copies. I wasn’t counting the glued flex cover one. Sadly, I only have one in red calf, the others are the ugly burgundy, which means more often than not I use the ugly burgundy out of fear of losing or damaging the irreplaceable red. If anybody has the red and wants to trade for a goatskin something or other, let me know. So I’m guessing that if they rounded me up at midnight, put a gun to my head, and said “Herr Bertrand, you are going to a wery nasty place for a wery long time, pick vun Bible to bring along,” I’d reach for the red calf REB New Testament (in the slipcase, naturally, since you need the extra protection during indefinite detention).
If somebody did a full Bible in a similarly readable single column setting (hint) it would be a big help.
3) Tell us a bit about yourself on a personal level. Aside from writing, what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
Bible Design Blog is what I do in my spare time, and the fact I don’t update as frequently as people would like is a testament to how little of it I have. Right now, I have a new novel out, which I’m promoting, and I’m also writing a novel. The one I’m writing is the second in a series. The first in that series comes out in July. So I’ll finish Book 2 and start doing promotion for Book 1. On top of that, in June and July I’ll be traveling on the West Coast teaching for Worldview Academy. When none of that is going on, I like to read, and sometimes to sleep.
There are a couple of things I wish I had more time for. One is theological reading. I’m one of those strange people who finds it satisfying. I don’t try to stay current, and I’m not particularly interested in a lot of academic theology, which is a little too culturally conditioned for my taste. But I latch onto things and wish I had more time to do them justice. I’m always a few centuries behind. The same goes for literature. So many books, too little time.
I’m one of those people who picks up an interest, focuses on it exclusively, then exhausts the subject. One of my history teachers told me the problem with King Philip was that he sweated the small stuff, dispatching bizarrely detailed instructions about every little thing to the limits of his kingdom. He sounds like my kind of guy, as anyone who’s every written me asking for advice on leather goods will know.
My most recent fixation has been cycling. Naturally, I don’t have much interest in the lycra outfits and the helmets that make you look like one of Godzilla’s sparring partners, but I like vintage bikes and ended up getting a new one fitted out in the classic style, with hammered fenders, a front light, and a little bell. We live in a very bike friendly town (when it isn’t polar bear friendly), so this is a worthwhile obsession to have. I’d ride it more, only I don’t have the matching tweed outfit. BDB readers won’t be surprised to hear that I was able to find a real vintage bike for my wife that’s nicer than mine (lugged steel frame) for 1/20th of the cost. The subject may change, but the logic remains the same.
But if you’ll allow me, I want to circle back to the writing. I know a lot of BDB readers are active in ministry, and many are influential in other ways, and I desperately want them to check out my books and even to recommend them. You can think of it as a public radio thing, where buying the books is how you do your part to support the programming. But the thing is, if you like BDB, there’s a good chance you might actually like my books, too. The same mind’s behind them, after all. I try to keep the shameless self-promotion to a minimum on the site, but since I believe in what I do, I like to share it. So please … buy my books!
4) How many Bibles do you currently own?
At the risk of sounding like a hipster—or worse, a hipster wannabe—I like to think of myself as “curating” them, not owning them. I have no idea how many are on my shelves. I don’t keep a running count, and even if I wanted to, they’re spread out all over the place. And people keep sending me more! I get a lot of review copies these days—not as many as I’d like, and not from as many different sources, but that’s improving—and I end up giving some of the nicer ones away. (One of the reasons I don’t do destructive testing on review copies or use Sharpies on the paper to see if they show through is that nobody likes to visit Aladdin’s Cave, pick out a treasure, and find out somebody’s already written all over it.)
5) How has the BDB impacted the bible publishing community? Are you able to communicate with them to offer opinions and critiques and are they responsive?
Let me answer the second question first. Am I able to communicate with them? Absolutely. A lot of people in the industry read my blog. Some of them get in touch directly. I’ve done some actual consulting work, which has been fantastic. I’ve offered feedback, solicited and not. The challenge is, as a “reviewer,” by the time I give my input it’s usually too late. So I’m always trying to make the pitch for an earlier involvement.
What hasn’t happen is, nobody’s come to me and said: “Tell us what to do and we’ll do it.” I dream about that. And when it happens, I’ll be ready. So far, though, no one has had a sufficient quantity of BDB Kool-Aid to think you can’t go wrong financially by giving Bertrand a free hand. All in good time.
As far as impact goes … I want to be realistic. I’ve helped a few projects be better than they otherwise would have been. But I haven’t changed the world or anything. Hopefully the ideals I’ve tried to argue for will have an influence over time.
In terms of impact that has been felt (as opposed to my future hopes), I’ll throw three things out there. First, I think Bible Design Blog has made readers more conscious of the decisions that go into their Bibles, so they have informed opinions about things they otherwise wouldn’t have noticed. Second, I’ve been able to introduce a wider audience to higher quality editions, and that’s helped sustain and expand their market. Lastly, I’d like to believe that people’s reaction to the blog has helped convince publishing executives that there’s a real desire for good design and quality out there.
6) The BDB has gathered quite a little community. Were you aware that there were so many others that shared your passion and concerns for Bible design and bindings?
I’ve been corresponding with people about the subject far longer than Bible Design Blog has been around, so yes, I knew there were passionate folks out there. The surprise has been that so many non-antiquarian, non-book people have hopped on board. The logic has always been that only a small minority of Bible readers are really concerned about production quality and good design, but the success of the site suggests that when they’re clued into the issues, a lot of people who aren’t otherwise interested in book design or publishing become passionate about this subject. That’s what gets me excited.
Of course, some of you guys are crazy. If you’ve ever taken calipers to a Bible, reported the result on the site, and then tried to get everyone else to take calipers to every other Bible out there so you can plug the results into a spreadsheet … well, you’re crazy. But I’m glad you’re out there. Just stop sending me calipers in the mail!
7) What is the one Bible you would love to see published?
The one I’ve been advocating for so long, namely a hand-sized single-column text setting with classic typography, modern punctuation, and superb production standards. With section headings and chapter numbers, but probably not verse numbers. Something like the NEB layout come of age. And I’d love to see a variety of translations using the same format, so that more of us could have that “one Bible” experience.
But it wouldn’t be one Bible. See, the beautiful thing is that an elegant single column text setting would lend itself to a whole range of editions. Enlarge it for a nice, reader-friendly volume, Shrink it for a portable. Add extra space for a wide margin. Really, that’s the ideal. Three editions, one for the pocket, one for the hand, one for study, each with the same layout and page numbering, available in a variety of bindings from quality hardback to fine leather.
8) You seem to have had an influence in the Bibles being produced at Allan’s and those being offered at evangelicalbible.com. Can you explain a little your history with these two companies?
Obviously, I’ve written a lot about Allan’s editions. My first one was the Brevier Blackface in Cape Levant goatskin, which I ordered sight unseen from Canada. The price tag is still on the box, and it says $215.95, which I assume was in Canadian dollars. I loved the cover, but wasn’t crazy about the Oxford text block. I don’t remember which ones I tried next, but I ended up with a few. And then Allan’s did the ESV1, which I pre-ordered. Eventually, as I wrote about them more, I corresponded with Nicholas Gray, shared some thoughts. He was the first publisher to send me a review copy, which was a good thing, because I couldn’t have kept the site going otherwise. So Allan’s has a special place in my heart. Some people might think I focus on them too much, but I don’t think that’s possible. EvangelicalBible.com is a distributor of Allan’s editions in the US. I don’t know that I’ve had influence on what they carry (apart from the NIV Pocket Cross Reference). I do know that I always badmouth the atrocious Single Column Reference ESV when I talk to Paul, and he keeps pretending it’s a great edition.
I should probably point out that I don’t have a business relationship with either Allan’s or EvangelicalBible.com, any more than with the other publishers whose editions I write about. I do have friendly relations with them, though. I like what they’re doing. In a lot of ways, the reviewing side of BDB can be boiled down to that. I’m writing about stuff I like, stuff I wish there was more of, people who’re getting some part of the puzzle right. Of course, there are more out there, and I’m looking for them.
9) What is the worst bible you have ever handled/owned?
The competition here is fierce! My apologies for those about to be roasted. I’m sure the intentions were good. And I’m not going to single out the Single Column Reference ESV, even though its existence pains me (mainly because of what it could have been). It’s nicely made, I just don’t think the way the verse-per-line/single-column combo butchers the text is very attractive.
My biggest disappointment was probably the first edition of the NET Bible, because I love the translation notes and wish everybody would follow their lead on that—but the first time I opened it, I was incredulous. It doesn’t just insert the verse numbers into the text, it gives the chapter numbers, too. So in chapter three of a particular book, you get 3:1, 3:2, 3:3, etc., like the text was copied and pasted from the web without anyone noticing. I wept. I’d love to have a printed edition of the NET Bible’s translation notes, similar to the companion volumes you can get for the Greek NT. I could use it pretty much with any version when I wanted some insight into the translation issues.
There’s a thing called the Kwikscan Bible that puts the important stuff in bold, so you can skip over the rest. They’re real clever about it, too. The bold text actually reads in complete sentences. They might as well have cut the rest out. Whenever people get flustered at my criticism of red letter editions (a late nineteenth century innovation), I always think of the Kwikscan Bible. Because the same arrogance that led someone to think they could improve the Bible by boldfacing the essential bits motivated someone else to think they could improve it by putting Christ’s words in red. (A better idea would have been to put them in quotation marks, but that would be meddling with the text.)
Along similar lines, there’s this terrible edition out there called the Defined King James Bible. It repeats a limited number of vocabulary words in the margin so that modern readers can check words that have changed meaning over time. Unfortunately, the editors seemed to think only a handful of words had, and no expressions of speech, so it’s not especially helpful. This could have been a great idea—for example, if they’d looked at a critical edition of Chaucer or Shakespeare and seen how that kind of apparatus can work—but instead it’s an utter flop. And yes, I have one.
I could go on. The point is, what these all have in common is they make an idiosyncratic departure from the norm which fails utterly. But I passionately want designers and publishers to depart from the norm. The innovations need to be beneficial, though, and well executed. Most of these failures could probably be traced back to a creative process that didn’t take usage into consideration.
10) Do you have any concerns or words of wisdom for Bible publishers today?
This is roundabout, but if you bear with me it’ll make sense. Sometime in the late nineties, somebody in my office came back from Europe with a magazine about cell phones. At the time, the way the American market worked, every carrier had a different network, and offered one or two phones to go with it. If those phones had any features, they weren’t enabled. But in Europe there was this incredible diversity. I was shocked how far ahead of us they were. The difference was, they had a standardized network, so the competition was all about handsets and features. Things have changed somewhat in the last decade, but we still don’t have a standard network here, and it shows.
When there were one or two translations in use out there, and the only specialty study Bible was the reprehensible Scofield, how did publishers compete? They made better Bibles. No, the design wasn’t particularly innovative (leaving out the NEB), but you had a variety of colors, materials, and sizes on offer. The advertising actually gave you the product specs, told you the kind of paper, the type of leather, the way it was bound—information that’s treated today like a trade secret. There were real benefits to deliver. Once every carrier started running its own network, that started to change.
I’m not saying we need to get back to just one translation, but we haven’t seemed to learn how to handle ourselves in a world of options. New translations come out now, and they’re available in a variety of speciality formats (this guy’s study notes, that guy’s better living mantra, this organization’s logo) long before anyone thinks, “Hey, if this translation’s going to last, people might want to write notes in the margin.” Some thought needs to go into how a book is used, especially one that’s used as often and in as many different contexts as the Bible.
What I’ve tried to do at Bible Design Blog is showcase examples of where a designer or producer does seem to have engaged in that process. A lot of people think of BDB as a review site, and me as a reviewer, but to be honest, reviewing is just a means to an end. I’m trying to foster a conversation that will support design innovation in the field, not by promoting one rigid orthodoxy (though I have one, the single-column cult), but by getting people to think differently about the physical form of the Good Book.
11) If someone is new to the high end, quality Bible market, how would you advise them for their first purchase?
If you’re just starting out, you’ve got is so good! When I got into this, you paid your money based on a text description and a few weeks or maybe months later, you got your first look at the edition. Now there are photos to look at, reviews to read, opinions to compare. My advice is to take your time and think about what you really want. You can spend a lot of money fast, but you’re better off doing your due diligence. Go back through the archive at Bible Design Blog, back to the beginning, and start reading. There’s a huge amount of information. Don’t just look at reviews of particular translations, check out everything. It’ll help you get up to speed.
For the person looking to make one purchase, there are some obvious choices. If you can live with a two-column text setting, the Cambridge Pitt Minion is available in a variety of translations. Get one bound in goatskin and live with it awhile. That might be the last edition you ever need. If you want the single column experience, there’s the Cambridge Single Column NIV and the Personal Size Reference ESV (and I’d recommend the Allan’s edition of that for obvious reasons). Wide margins? Go with Cambridge. The Nelson Signature line doesn’t seem to be current anymore, which is a shame. A few publisher offer similar editions. If you want the floppy, matte calfskin experience, check those out.
The main thing is this: do a lot of thinking up front, make a choice, and then live with it for awhile. I was really disappointed with my Cambridge Pitt Minion ESV at first because the cover was too stiff, but a couple of months in, it was perfect. That happens. You may not feel a year from now the way you do when you open the box.
Here’s one more thing I’d say to a newcomer. You’re going to get this in life, and you’ll see it from time to time on the blog. Someone will come along, puff himself up, and say, “It’s not the outside that matters, it’s the inside!” Like he’s telling us something we don’t know. Some people get off on stating the obvious. They’re the same ones who snigger at seminary education and say “loving Jesus is what’s really important,” as if people upend their lives and go to seminary because they think otherwise. The point is, if you’re frustrated with crappy editions, if you’re insulted by them even, and you decide it’s time to invest in a quality one, don’t let some well-meaning idiot come along and make you feel bad about it. My favorite verse to twist is from the KJV: “Happy is the man that condemneth himself not for that thing which he alloweth.” In other words, you don’t have to answer to the nitwit who thinks it’s a sin to spend more the $50, or $25, or whatever sum he happened to spend last on a Bible. And I mean nitwit in the uplifting, non-pejorative sense, naturally.
12) Would you please explain your process for choosing a Bible to review and your methods you employ in the actual reviewing process?
Words like “process” and “method” make it sound more intelligent than it is. For better or worse, here’s how it works. Publishers send review copies. Typically, they’ll get in touch with me and say they have something I might be interested in. I rarely solicit things from them, but it happens occasionally.
The ESV Study Bible is a good example. Originally I wanted to a side-by-side comparison of every option, but Crossway had already worked out a promotional plan, which involved sending black TruTones out to all the blogger/reviewers. So I ended up with one of those. I liked the ESV SB a lot, but not in that format, and ended up not writing about it … or rather, I ended up posting pictures of Olive Tree’s great ESV SB app for the iPhone instead. But some time passed and I started wondering if I was wrong to advise people to go either for the hardback or the software. So I got in touch with them again, and they sent a brown cordovan calfskin. I’ve mentioned it on the site, and will probably do a write-up.
Okay, this is a sidebar, but let me add something. People will e-mail me and say, “Why don’t you write about this edition or that one?” The answer is usually that I don’t have one. Maybe I’ve never heard of it. The best way to get that edition reviewed is for them to contact that publisher and say: “Send one to Bertrand.” I wish they would. Publishers sending review copies is no big deal. My publisher will send out quite a few when I have a book coming out. That’s the only way to get them in reviewers hands. But sometimes smaller publishers, especially if they aren’t doing other books, don’t know that. If somebody does a short run facsimile of the Geneva Bible bound in tan pigskin, for example, the odds are they aren’t going to send me one. And it’s a shame, because I have a tan pigskin theme room in my house.
Anyway, the stuff arrives and I try to live with it awhile. Sometimes I’ll write about an edition quickly, sometimes I take more time. I have to think about what to say, form an opinion, make some comparisons. Read it. Carry it. The process varies. Although the site seems to attract a lot of engineer types, I’m not one of them, so I don’t have a standard method I run through in every case. I let each edition dictate the kind of coverage I should give it.
I’m also looking for non-review ways to incorporate things. My goal really isn’t to create some kind of Buyer’s Guide to Bibles. The site can function that way, and I’m comfortable with that, but as I said before, it’s really about the conversation between design and production. People think I want them to buy this or that. I don’t care what they buy. I just happen to like certain things, and I’m passionate about them. So I’m looking for ways to showcase more editions, different kinds, things that don’t necessarily fit into the framework I’ve established. It’s all very fluid.
There are a few things I don’t write about. I try to be careful with what influence I have, which makes it hard for me to hype organizations I really have concerns about. While I try to be broadly ecumenical as far as my writing goes, covering a wide spectrum, and I’m not averse to an even broader scope, encompassing Catholic and Jewish editions (I’ve done a little Eastern Orthodox, but would love to do more), there are some sites I don’t feel comfortable pointing people to. Extreme KJV Only stuff, for example. If you’re to the right of the Trinitarian Bible Society … if you’d burn most of the KJV translators at the metaphorical stake if you realized who they were … then you could print Bibles on 100% opaque paper, bind them in leviathan-print unicorn skin, and give them away for a buck apiece, and I’d have a hard time recommending you. But that’s probably because I love the KJV so much, and thanks to the fringe, if you’re not KJV Only you have to be KJV But. As in, I live the KJV, but I’m not going to verbally assault you.
That was a sidebar, too. At some point, I feel like I have something to say about a particular edition, so I grab my camera and start taking pictures. People ask what the secret is to photos like mine, and it’s taking a bunch of them. I’m not a good photographer, technically speaking. My pictures aren’t always lit well or focused right. What I’m trying to do is capture a feel. I want images that speak to the experience of handing, that give you an idea of touch and texture. While there are a few standard shots that I do, there’s no check list. Some Bibles lend themselves to manipulation is certain ways, and some don’t.
The famous “yoga” shots deserve some explanation. I don’t suggest that the first thing you do when you get a new Bible is roll it up into a ball. But I think it’s a good way to visually suggest the flexibility of a cover. If you just look at one of these pictures, it might not communicate much, but looking at a number of them will. Really limp Bibles, heavy and limp like the Cambridge wide margins, they won’t form a nice circle for you. The cover won’t support the text block’s weight, so you get a flattened, butterfly-like look, small in the middle and full on the sides. A more structured Bible, or one with less weigh to the paper, will stand up more, like that St. Louis monument. They’re flexible, but not limp. Before I started curling the covers over and playing with them, I didn’t have a good way to suggest these things, and now I do.
Ever since the ESV Pitt Minions, maybe before, I’ve been incorporating more staged shots, instead of the clinical white background (which given my poor skills are often grayish anyway). I’m especially fond of doing whole range reviews — all the Pitt Minions, all the Allan’s PSRs — and when I have a group, I like to put them on the book shelves with other leather volumes. Again, it’s an effort to find an visual metaphor that communicates the feel of the book.
I could go on, but this probably way more detail than anyone wants to read!
13) Could you share with us a glimpse into your own devotional time in Gods word?
First off, I really like the One Year Bible for daily reading and recommend it as a great first step to everyone. What I’m about to get into is more byzantine in complexity. Since the ESV Daily Reading Bible came out, I’ve been hooked on that reading plan. It can be adapted to any translation. The reason I push so hard for a minimum of three ribbons in a Bible is so that a plan like this can be easily followed.
So that’s the one I use, with one exception. My wife and I are on-again, off-again users of the Book of Common Prayer’s daily office, and when we’re on again I use the lectionary readings that go along with it. I wish I was a sufficiently talented liturgist to adapt the form better to my own practice, in which case I’d integrate the reading plan more effectively instead of going back and forth.
I’m a confessional Presbyterian, so my theology differs a bit from that of the prayer book, but until some enterprising soul comes up with a new Reformed Prayer Book, that’s what I’m using. (I keep trying to entice people into this project: you start with the Anglican Breviary, adapt the services where necessary, add readings from the Reformed tradition to the early fathers, and so on. No one listens.)
Devotional pamphlets of the Daily Bread variety don’t appeal to me. I get impatient with that kind of reading. So I spend my time reading the Bible, doing prayer, and dipping into a theological text. I’m not systematic about it. A lot of Herman Bavinck recently. I do have one devotional book. It’s called something like Day by Day with John Calvin, and it has about the most irenic portrait Calvin possible on the cover, but he still doesn’t look like warm sunsets and clip-art flowers are what inspires him to worship.
14) What was your first Bible?
I still have it, a massive golden hardback of illustrated Bible stories. Still in great shape, all the pages intact, which is a testament to quality manufacture because this thing was not coddled. The pictures I remember so vividly aren’t the actual illustrations, but more the daydreams those illustrations inspired. There was a prophet sprinting between some trees with a palace in the background, some gold-armored soldiers in pursuit, and I can remember so much detail that isn’t really there! That’s the beauty of a illustrated editions, I guess. They capture the imagination. In comparison to this, the modern ones I’ve seen don’t hold a candle. Maybe it’s the scenes they choose the interpret, I don’t know. You’ve gotta have some chariot action. I’m sure my children’s Bible didn’t really have a painting of Samuel hacking Agag to death, but that was the spirit of the thing. If I dig it out and check though, it’s going to be all lions and lambs.
15) On behalf of the community, thanks for what you do! We really do appreciate not only your efforts, but your love for the physical book as well.
I’m grateful. I know I’m opinionated and inconsistent, and I don’t always measure things out, and my reviews can be shockingly inconsistent from one example to the next. So I do appreciate how people get involved, making up for my blind spots, supplying all kinds of information and expertise. The blog is a labor of love, as I’m always saying, but the same is true for the community that surrounds it. As a writer, it’s nice to have an audience that shares the same interests. So thanks!