Bible Review: Crossway ESV Personal Size Reference in Genuine Leather

Please note that this Bible has been replaced by the newer–and, I think, well improved–Personal Reference Bible!

The first Bible I bought for myself was a Crossway ESV Personal Size Reference in black Tru-Tone. During elementary school I used a couple of hardcover NIV Bibles from Zondervan, which were great. My parents bought them for me, and they served me quite well. But as I grew older, especially as I started reading about different translation philosophies, Crossway convinced me that the ESV had the best balance between a literal translation of the original languages and a literary rendering of the text. I loved the single column layout, as well as how easy the language was to read. Though described as literal, it didn’t read like a word-for-word transcription of the original texts. It was a smooth transition from the NIV–and on top of that, the layout was excellent.

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Then I found out from the Bible Design Blog review that the Personal Size Reference (I may call it “PSR” for short) only had a sewn binding in the genuine leather edition. I wanted my Bible to last, so I went back and ordered myself a PSR in genuine leather. It’s been almost five years since I bought it, and I’m still using it, so I guess that worked out! I’m reviewing my Personal Size Reference because I love it, despite its quirks, and to pave way for the upcoming Personal Reference and the Single Column Heritage, both of which are single column ESVs due for release in the next few months. (You’ll notice that this Bible looks used. That’s because it is–I wasn’t able to secure a review copy from Crossway, so all the pictures are of my personal Bible. They are a not-for-profit ministry, so for the foreseeable future, all my Crossway ESV reviews will be of personal copies.)

Text Layout

As you can see, the Personal Size Reference is a single column Bible, which means that instead of the traditional two columns of text, there is only one column. This is the layout we’re most used to seeing in everything except our Bible. All our novels, textbooks, and websites are laid out in single column. The exception to this is reference texts, such as dictionaries, and perhaps magazines. Double column is more space effective, since the white space due to paragraph endings is reduced. The downside is that I find double column less enjoyable to read, because my eyes have to constantly flit back and forth from the end of the line to the beginning. It interrupts the flow of my reading. To be fair, part of this is due to the cultural context: if double column books were the norm, then it wouldn’t be so strange for me to read the Bible in that layout. But it’s not, so I prefer a single column layout. Look at how natural it is:

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It’s possible that where this Bible excels the most is in sections of poetry. Reading the Psalms is an entirely new experience with a single column Bible. I’ve noted in other reviews that one of the reason I don’t like poetry in double column Bibles is because it can leave one word on a line by itself. This does not happen in the Personal Size Reference, at least not that I’m aware of. More than that, the poetry in the PSR actually looks like poetry. Individual lines aren’t broken up into three or four due to the narrowness of the columns. Each psalm looks like poetry, like a collection of couplets. It’s a delightful change from reading poetry in double column Bibles. You’ll notice how much white space there is on these pages. This is not an economical way to print a Bible, but it’s the best way to read one.

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Ghosting is somewhat of a concern. These pictures are representative of how much the text on the other side of the page shows through. This Bible was printed in Belgium in 2007. The Belgium prints are more valued than the China prints, although I have no idea why. I bought a few Personal Size Reference Bibles from Crossway when they were on sale a few months ago, and the ones I received were printed in China in 2011. The paper is whiter and the printing is darker; however, the ghosting is no better. If you’re sensitive to ghosting, this Bible will probably be bothersome. It is to me at times, although good lighting helps mitigate the effect somewhat.

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Readability is really where the Personal Size Reference shines. The single column layout alone makes this Bible a pleasure to read. Not only do I read the PSR because I love the Word of God, but all the more so because the design is excellent. The Bible’s design does not, for the most part, detract from the text. Below you have an example where prose and poetry appear on the same page; this Bible really is a delight to read. It’s important to note that this is also due to the paragraph setting; I don’t think it would read as nicely if it were verse-by-verse. Verse-by-verse may be easier to study from and to find verses when preaching, but paragraph strings logical thoughts together and is more the format we’re used to. In the Personal Size Reference, the single column and paragraph combination excels.

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That isn’t to say that it doesn’t have its problems. I have a few quibbles with the Personal Size Reference. First is the internal inconsistency in its design. Below you have an example of what the beginning of a book looks like. I find the alternating use of serif and sans serif fonts, and bold and italics and combinations thereof, to be rather distracting. The main text of the Bible is in a serif font. It’s not as readable a font as Lexicon No.1 (which, if you’ll recall from my Allan ESV1 review, was designed for small print), but it’s also not as old-looking. It’s a clean, modern font, and I think it holds its own in terms of aesthetics. This isn’t the problem.

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The problem is that this font is, to me, aesthetically incompatible with the other font choices. The section headers are a sans serif font, in bold and italics. Why? I think it clashes with the use of non-bold, non-italics serif in the main text. On top of that, the page markers in the upper corners are the same sans serif font, but in all caps, unbolded, and un-italicized. On this page with the Psalms, the book title is in the sans serif font, but “Book One” is in the serif font. There’s just so much inconsistency it’s bothersome. As for book introductions, I like them. I think there’s a better way to format them–do we need the gray box?–but I like having a brief contextualization of what I’m about to read. And I’m not a fan of the lines running top, bottom, and center, but I don’t actively dislike it, either. The font inconsistency is my biggest gripe about the text design and layout.

As a side note, one of the things Mr. Bertrand doesn’t like about the layout is that there are too many words to one line. Novels have a fewer number of characters per line, so initially the PSR seems a lot more crowded than a regular book. I agree with his assessment, but I don’t feel that it detracts much from the reading experience. For the moment, I’m thankful enough for a single column Bible that I can overlook this. If I had a Bible that had a more “ideal” number of characters per line, I might change my mind.

Binding

Let’s get this thought out of the way: I don’t think anyone is buying the Personal Size Reference for the genuine leather binding. When I got it, I was rather surprised at what the cover looks like. It’s shiny and the leather has no substance to it. When I bend the cover, the feel I get is more cardboard than pigskin. Moreover, the leather is so thin that when the cover is bent, air pockets between the leather and the underlying bookboard are visible. (I emailed Crossway about this issue, and they were very willing to send out a new Bible under their warranty policy. Their customer service seems fantastic.)

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Perhaps with the picture, you can get a sense for my surprise. It looks like leather and smells like leather, but that’s about where it ends. To be fair, in marketing terms, this stuff is “genuine leather.” It’s a very, very, very thin sheet of pigskin pasted onto a bookboard underneath for support. It’s not bonded leather, which is essentially leather dust composited together. Crossway is being honest here, and the genuine leather has held up reasonably well over the past four years.

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The workmanship isn’t particularly awe-inspiring. The corners are rather oddly crafted–instead of crimping or cutting multiple slivers and pasting them down, both of which I have seen before, the leather that exceeds the endpaper is cut into tabs and glued down. As you can see below, this leaves an odd gap in the corner. It’s not aesthetic, and I think it could have been improved with just a bit more work. It’s just somewhat disappointing that the most expensive edition of the Personal Size Reference–which this was at the time I bought it, since the lambskin edition had not yet been released–bound in genuine leather has sub-par workmanship in its binding.

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Here you can see my 2007-published PSR (Belgium) next to a 2011-published PSR (China). The corners on the newer Personal Size Reference are much nicer, and this is on a cheaper, Tru-Tone Bible. I have no idea what the genuine leather bindings look like now, but I hope they’ve been changed to have the same attention to detail as the Tru-Tone editions. One difference between the genuine leather-bound PSRs and the Tru-Tone-bound PSRs: the genuine leathers have what I would call a synthetic leather liner–I think the endpapers are some sort of vinyl-lined paper. It’s rather nice, and I think it would be more resistant to tearing than the paper liners of the Tru-Tones.

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The Tru-Tones are excellent covers. They are soft and rather flexible. If you find a design you like, I have no qualms about recommending them to you. If you prefer a binding on the more flexible side, I suggest a cover that is not stitched; as you can see below, the ones I have are made from three pieces of Tru-Tone and they are stitched together. (According to the product page, it’s a “Forest/Tan, Trail Design.”) The stitching makes the cover a little less flexible than some of the other options, like the Plum Wildflower design or the Mahogany Trellis design. If you like less flexible bindings, the Forest/Tan Trail is a good choice, or the Graphite Stitch. I appreciate that Crossway makes so many options available–I have a friend who loves purple, so she got the Plum PSR and loves it–but that they are all quality products. All the newer PSRs, including the Tru-Tone editions, are Smyth sewn, which means the book blocks will be more flexible and durable. (Rebinding is a definite option with the Personal Size Reference.)

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I know I came down a bit roughly on the genuine leather earlier, but it’s not terrible. Like I said, it is, in fact, real pigskin leather. Besides the air bubble issue, the leather has held up quite well. The shininess is probably some sort of treatment; if it is, it’s helped the leather resist scuffing and scratching. As would be expected of an animal’s skin, it’s been durable and hasn’t torn or warped in any way. It acts like leather, it just doesn’t feel like leather.

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When I first got this Bible, the cover was stiff. The bookboards did not like to bend at all. After about a year of use, the flexibility in the cover still wasn’t that great. Most frustratingly, the PSR had a tendency to close in the Genesis and Revelation areas. So over a period of a couple of weeks, I rolled the front and back covers back and forth to put some wear on the bookboards. I wanted to stress them a bit so that they would become more flexible. Well, it worked! I don’t have any comparison pictures to show you, but I do have some of what the flexibility is like now. Trust me–it’s a whole lot better than when I first got it. The Bible stays open in Genesis and Revelation now, like it should.

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Not great, but not bad, either. The most important thing to me is that it now stays open everywhere. The sewn binding no doubt helps with it, since the individual signatures can move around to optimize the openness of the Bible. Below you can get a sense of how limp the Bible is, and how it feels in the hand. If the support were taller, the draping effect would be even greater. It’s extremely limp when held, if you like that sort of thing.

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(I tried to get a picture of the sewn binding. I think you can kind of see the signatures–little booklets of pages bound together–which make the book block more durable and flexible.)

Comparisons

Truth be told, I read the Personal Size Reference more than I do any other Bible I own, and I own an Allan ESV1 and a Cambridge Pitt Minion. Though the ESV1 has a superior binding and a larger font, the size of the PSR is far more manageable. The Pitt Minion is comparable in size–it’s a touch thinner. (I actually prefer how the PSR fills my hand better when I hold it.) But I come back to the Personal Size Reference as my default reading and church Bible because of its pararaphed, single column layout. It’s so visually appealing that I’ll pick it again and again over the other Bibles I have if given the choice.

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Crossway PSR on top, Allan ESV1 on bottom.

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Cambridge Pitt Minion on top, Crossway PSR on bottom.

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Crossway Deluxe Compact on top, two Crossway PSRs below it.

Closing Thoughts

I am very glad that Crossway decided to make a paragraphed single column Bible five years ago. It is, without a doubt, my favorite Bible to read from. The layout is so great that I gladly overlook its drawbacks: the number of words on a line, font inconsistency, workmanship–I accept them all for how much of a delight it is to read God’s word in this setting.  I love the Personal Size Reference, and I’m sure many others do, as well. The combination of paragraphing and single column layout is a winner.

The layout has been successful enough that Crossway has produced the Single Column Legacy, another paragraphed single column that addresses some of the characters-per-line issues. They are set to release the Single Column Heritage and the Personal Reference; the former is the Legacy with smaller margins, the latter is an update of the Personal Size Reference. Crossway has released a PDF of the interior of the update to the Personal Size Reference, called the Personal Reference. It has a larger font size but the same column width, so there will be fewer characters per line. It also adjusts, I would say favorably, the fonts to be all serif and thus more consistent. I look forward to seeing how Crossway improves on the Personal Size Reference!

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