Bible Review: Crossway ESV Personal Reference Bible in Black TruTone

The Personal Reference Bible is the successor to the Personal Size Reference Bible, hence the confusing similarity in nomenclature. (Hereafter I will refer to the Personal Reference Bible as the PRB.) I have been extremely excited for the release of the PRB because of the improvements it makes over the Personal Size Reference (PSR for short). The PSR was fantastic in its single column, paragraphed layout, but had more words per line than the average novel. Though this wasn’t a great concern for me at the time, the PRB makes great improvements that make reading it much easier. Moreover, the interior text design has gone through a major revision, giving it a much more unified appearance. The Personal Reference Bible is a welcome improvement over its predecessor, and I’m excited to be doing a review of it.

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Text Layout

We’ll start where it matters, and where I think the Personal Reference Bible shines the most. J. Mark Bertrand makes some good observations near the bottom of his review of the PSR, that the average number of words per line should be 12 and the PSR exceeds this guideline. Well, Crossway must have listened, because they shifted in that direction, putting fewer words on a line–by increasing the font size! The result is not only an improvement in aesthetics and layout, but thanks to the bigger font size, in readability. The Personal Reference Bible is not only easier to read, but also even more enjoyable to read than the PSR. All because of a couple adjustments!

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Another noticeable difference is the font size. The PRB opts to use Lexicon No.1 instead of whatever they were using before. It makes the text layout look… older. It’s a much more classic look than that of the PSR, which compared to the PRB looks more modern. The change in “tone,” if you will, took some getting used to, but I thoroughly enjoy it now. It’s much more stately. The other benefit of using Lexicon No.1 is that it is a font optimized for small print. The font itself is quite bold, with thicker lines in the letters, and the letters as a whole are noticeably wider than they were in the PSR. So in addition to the increase in font size, the font itself makes a much bolder impression. It is very markedly easier to read, even for my young eyes. If I have a choice, I will choose the PRB every time. The column width seems more natural now, with the proper number of words per line, and the font is more readable. It really is a delight!

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Yet another noticeable difference is in the de-cluttering and consistency of the layout. First, they got rid of the line that runs around the text. It makes a surprising amount of difference. The text breathes better now–there’s more white space on the page; the column doesn’t seem so confined and blocked in. Second, all the text in the main column is in Lexicon No.1 and all the text in the reference column is sans serif. One of my biggest complaints about the Personal Size Reference was that there was no internal consistency on the page. The main text was serif, the section headings were sans serif bold and italic, the page numbers were sans serif regular. To me, all the different elements clashed. They didn’t detract all that much–like the words per line issue–but they weren’t exactly aesthetic. Now we have a classic, consistent layout design. I love it, and my thanks to Crossway for making such major, noticeable departures–improvements!–over the previous design.

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Look how the text has room to breathe!

Crossway decided to use line matching in the Personal Reference Bible. This means that every line on the page is lined up with the line on the opposite side. The result is, yet again, a surprising increase in readability. I had a hypothesis for why this was, and the more I read the PRB, the more I’m convinced it’s true: by matching each line against the opposite side, the white space between each line becomes more pronounced because there is no line text on the other side to show through. The increased contrast between the dark text of each line and the white space between naturally draws the eye to the darker text. It doesn’t sound like much, but again, it’s surprisingly helpful. I’ve gone back a couple times to the PSR to do my daily readings, and the bleedthrough from the other pages can be distracting. In the PRB, the bleedthrough is rendered illegible because all the lines stacked up together just create gray. It’s another welcome improvement.

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Line matching in prose.

Paper

I want to take a couple of seconds to talk about the paper in the Personal Reference Bible. It’s noticeably different from the PSR’s paper. It’s arguably of lower quality–probably true, though I’m not a paper expert–but I don’t mind. The paper in the PSR is more like what we think of when we think of paper: like regular printer/copy paper, it’s textured and cottony; the biggest difference is, of course, that the PSR paper is much, much thinner. The PRB paper is not cottony or textured. I was surprised when I handled it–without the texture, it’s very smooth, almost slippery. I suppose in this sense it could be considered lower quality. But the reason I don’t mind is because it’s also a lot whiter. (Some of my photos show it to be off-white; this is the camera, not the paper.) The PRB’s paper draws a much better contrast with the print. This and everything else I mentioned above makes it very easy to read.

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Line matching in poetry. Ghosting is not eliminated, but is mitigated.

No, ghosting isn’t eliminated. You can still see the print from the other side of the page. But the paper in the PRB does slightly better at this in my opinion than does the paper in the PSR. The real gamechanger in terms of legibility is the line matching. The increased contrast and the obscuring of the opposite line due to “stacking” the text on top of each other minimizes the show-through and makes it pretty much unreadable.

Binding

Though TruTone, the binding on my PRB is outstanding. First of all, the text block is sewn, which increases flexibility and durability. A small group of pages are sewn together into little booklets, called “signatures,” a whole bunch of which are collected and sewn together to make the text block. (It’s hard to explain–it makes more sense if you look at a picture.) It’s more flexible because the signatures are attached to fabric, which is itself very flexible. A glued binding is less flexible because each page is stuck in a wall of glue. The glue doesn’t bend easily, and if it bends too much, it can crack. This crack can increase in size and degrade over time, which leads to pages falling out. A sewn binding is more durable because each page is sewn to many others by thread; the only way a page will come out is if it is ripped out from the center gutter.

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The cover is, to say the least, impressive. The TruTone is stamped with a fake grain. I know this isn’t a new practice for Crossway, but my PSR in TruTone didn’t have a grained cover; it was just plain and kind of floppy. This a subtle but very elegant way to dress up the cover. I absolutely love it. I don’t know if the stamping did anything to the flexibility of the cover, but it’s not floppy or limp. I personally prefer it this way, since it’s easier to hold a Bible when the thing isn’t trying to fall out of your hand. If I had to guess, I’d say that the cover is probably thicker than that of my old PSR TruTone, which probably contributes to its lesser flexibility. It’s not stiff, though, as you can see:

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It’s a good balance between flexibility and stiffness. For me, it’s an ideal amount. I’ve been breaking in the cover by gently rolling it on itself–it bends the thin sheet of cardboard in the cover–and the cover has become more flexible. (Not that it matters too much, since I mostly read my Bibles on my desk, or on my lap when I’m at church.) But if you want to know that the cover will break in, it does, and nicely so. I’m sure that the cover will break in a little bit more with use, taking on a pleasant worn-in feel.

You may have noticed in one of the pictures above that there is stitching around the border of the cover. This, too, should help in durability, to keep the cover from falling apart around the edges. The stitching is even and regular, without any breaks or stutters. I’m sure it was done with a machine, but even so, it’s done quite well. Whoever operates or calibrates the machine did an excellent job. It’s very nice in terms of aesthetics, but also plays quite well with the grain stamping. It shows that Crossway put a lot of thought into the binding in terms of design and durability. The result is quite nice.

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Obligatory corner shot. Look at how well it’s done!

Physical Comparison

Since the Personal Reference Bible is the update of the PSR, I thought a comparison between the two would be apt. There’s not much to say, though, since the general physical features are roughly the same.

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PSR on top, PRB bottom

One of the things I liked most about the PSR was its size. Smaller than a study Bible, but bigger than a compact Bible. It was big enough without being unwieldy, giving me a good font size without excess weight. It also gave me something to hold and something to fill my hand, which is something I don’t get from smaller Bibles. There was just something about it–to me, the 5×7.5″ dimension was ideal, fitting my mental proportions of what a Bible should look and feel like. It really was a personal sized reference Bible. I’m glad to say that the PRB maintains the same size and roughly the same thickness.

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The length and height dimensions are pretty much exactly the same, with negligible differences. The PRB is slightly thicker than the PSR, but again, it’s almost negligible. It’s about a hundred pages thicker, but when the pages are this thin, it doesn’t add much. The TruTone covers on the PRB are more substantive than the genuine leather covers on the PSR, which is my best guess for where the thicker feel comes from. It’s nice, though, because the PRB does fill my hand better than the PSR did.

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Miscellaneous

Some remarks that I couldn’t really find a better place to put:

Concordance & references: The concordance and references between the Personal Reference Bible and the PSR are exactly the same. I didn’t go through the entire Bible or concordance to check, but I did a spot check of concordance entries and they seem to be the same. If you were hoping for an expanded concordance–I was a little bit–it’s not to be found here.

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Ribbon: The ribbon on this PRB is single face, meaning that only one side is shiny satin. The other side shows a textured weave. I don’t mind, though, since the ribbon seems to be of a higher weight than that on the PSR. It’s less floppy–heavier, more substantive. I rather like it. Perhaps more importantly to most of you, it’s longer. You should be able to tell from the previous two pictures that it’s longer than the ribbon on the PSR. I haven’t measured it, but I would say mine extends a good three to three and a half inches. If you pull the ribbon to the corner and lift to find your spot, like I do, the length matters, and I’m glad Crossway lengthened their ribbons to make them more functional. Also, unlike the ribbon on my PSR, this ribbon is cut at a very nice angle. Small touches like that count!

Spine rounding: It has it. The text block has a rounded spine and the TruTone covers are molded to fit it. I like this little touch, because it feels more comfortable in my hand than a squared-off Bible. It sits nicely in the crease of my palm when I carry it.

Blank pages: Don’t get too excited–it’s nothing like you’ll see on an Allan. But I was surprised to see that the PRB includes four or five blank white pages–not sides, but pages–at the end. This isn’t a feature I’ve seen on any Crossway Bible before or since, but I do love it. It gives me the option to take brief notes in my Bible in case I’ll need them–verses for encouragement in times of distress, verses on evangelism, summaries of creeds, etc. The pages are quite heavy, heavier than standard 20 lb. copy paper. It’s a nice touch, and I’d love to see Crossway do this on all Bibles.

Uneven printing: In my copy of the PRB, the printing can be a little uneven. It’s not too severe, but some pages are darker than others. Even printing is of course desired, but the PRB errs on the better side of uneven printing. There are normal pages and dark pages. So far I’ve only come across one page that is unusually light, but it didn’t affect my reading ability.

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Line mismatching (visible above “Glory of Israel” and to the right)

Line mismatching: One of the things that bothered me most was that the lines aren’t always perfectly matched in the PRB. This doesn’t happen much, maybe 5-10% of the time, but it’s distracting. The downside of having line matching is that it’s quite noticeable when lines are mismatched, since one becomes quite used to having clean white space in between lines. The front and back of each page is usually fine; the mismatching generally occurs when two adjacent pages are not matched against each other. You can see below that after each line the print continues on the opposite side just fine–those lines are matched fine–but between the paragraphs the mismatching is evident.

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Another instance is shown below, more clearly since this is at the end of a book and so there is a lot of white space. This is more like what it is in actuality. The camera, for whatever reason, is unable to capture it well. Would it be a big deal in any other Bible that isn’t line matched? No, not at all. But the PRB sets a high standard for itself, and this is one area that needs some improvement. In my opinion, line matching needs to be done right, because otherwise the publisher trains the reader to expect it and get used to it; all is well for a few chapters until a page appears where the lines are mismatched, and it becomes a distraction. That being said, it’s done well for the vast majority of pages, and so is quite bearable.

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Closing Remarks

Let’s talk quality. The Personal Reference Bible is an extremely quality Bible. It has spine rounding, line matching, stitching around the edges of the cover, a nice and long ribbon, reasonable paper, and an elegant layout and design. At the Westminster Theological Seminary Bookstore, you can pick up the PRB for $15. I’m blown away. Nowhere else will you find a publishing company who can make this kind of a product that sells new anywhere for $15. My deep congratulations and thanks to Crossway for putting out such a product.

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You’ll find that in this review I used the word “surprised” several times. I am! This isn’t just a quality Bible for the price. Crossway put a lot of thought into the Personal Reference Bible, and it shows. I think this Bible stands far above many of the offerings of other publishers, even for Bibles that are more expensive. I have no doubt that here, Crossway is setting the standard for what Bibles should look like across the industry. Clearly, a Bible of this caliber can be made for $30 retail (which is about what I paid for the genuine leather PSR several years ago–not retail, of course). The bar has been set, folks. Other Bible publishers, take note: this is the standard to which many of us will begin to hold you. We’ll be looking for elegant, readable single column designs with good font sizes and line matching and thoughtful additions like cover stitching and nice, long ribbons.

The two things I would like Crossway consider changing are: first, to improve the line matching. I don’t know how easily or cost-effectively this can be done, since the printing is done in China, but it would just about perfect the book block to have it done. (Also, in my edition, the page numbers on the first 50 or so pages don’t like on top of each other. I’m wondering if that’s unique to my copy or a minor issue with the first print. Doesn’t affect readability, so I’m not bothered in the slightest. Just thought I’d mention it). The second thing is to offer more cover options. Personally I love the covers available for the PRB. They’re elegant and understated. (And have I mentioned I love the grain stamping on this black TruTone?) However, I have a friend who bought the plum wildflower edition of the PSR because purple is her favorite color, and I just thought I’d mention it since the whole point of releasing a multitude of different cover styles is so that people can have what they want. Personally, I’m not a fan of the antique/celtic cross designs, but I’m glad Crossway offers them to those who do like them. I realize this may also not be cost efficient, particularly if the PRB is not a big seller, but I thought I’d mention it. It doesn’t seem like the PRB costs too much to produce, anyway. (Relatively speaking, of course.)

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Do not let these two recommendations deter you. I love the Personal Reference Bible. It has quickly and easily become my go-to Bible. I do my daily readings in it, I bring it to church, I read it first when I do a more in-depth study (during which I use its references), I use its concordances. The Personal Reference Bible says quality and thoughtfulness. I love the Lexicon No.1, the line matching, the blank pages, the ribbon, the grain stamping–everything I’ve mentioned in the review is a fantastic and welcome improvement over the PSR.

I have a copy of the Single Column Heritage in my possession, and I daresay I like the Personal Reference Bible even more than that. (For starters, the Heritage seems to have worse bleedthrough.) And though I haven’t ever had a Cambridge Clarion, this all but cures my desire for one. At $15, this presents a very inexpensive alternative to the Clarion. I look forward to using the Personal Reference Bible, and I can’t recommend it to you enough. Crossway has all but perfected their single column, paragraph, reference Bible with the Personal Reference Bible. My hat is off to them, and my deep thanks for their continued innovation and sensitivity to consumer feedback in Bible production.

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16 responses to “Bible Review: Crossway ESV Personal Reference Bible in Black TruTone

  1. Thanks for such a thorough & well-written review, and all the pictures. I’d need one of these if I weren’t so fond of my ESV Legacy. :)

  2. That looks amazing! I just ordered this one. If it really is this good, I’m sending it down to Ace Bookbinding for a cowhide cover. This reminds me of my ESV personal size study layout, which I love, but a tad bigger font.

  3. Elliot: Excellent, extremely thorough review!
    Two questions:
    1) Where is the text block printed? It’s not a major concern, as you seem to indicate that the paper is thicker than that of the PSR. But, I find that Crossway’s Belgium and China text blocks tend to be problematic, so I look for their USA text blocks.

  4. 2) Would you mind if I re-blog, or even just share a link with some snippet quotes, over at hjimkeener.wordpress.com?

  5. Oops . . . I see you mentioned it was printed in China.

    • Hey, Jim! I absolutely would not mind if you reblogged this post. If you’d like to reference it in its entirety, I’d prefer if you simply posted the link for this post, but feel free to quote portions of it or reblog pictures directly. Thanks for asking!

      The paper quality isn’t the best, but the layout is so good that I don’t mind. It’s not terrible paper by any means, and line-matching helps mitigate most of the ghosting. I wish WTS would have these in stock already so I could order a couple more. :)

  6. Great review, this helped a lot. You mentioned you have the ESV Heritage and provided a few comments on it. Do you have any plans to provide a full review of that as well? I’d be interested how to two stack up.

    • Hi, Jon! I prefer the PRB to the Heritage because I find the proportioning on the Heritage to be rather strange. The text feels–oddly enough–too big, and the leading has too much space, and the poetry is centered on the page (left-justified, but everything moved over to the center)… I’ll consider doing a review of it in the coming weeks, although it’s more difficult since I’m not as enthused about it. My recommendation: if you want bigger text, go for the Heritage; if you want references and a concordance, go with the PRB. (Or if you want to save five bucks, also PRB.) Hope this helps at least a little!

      Elliot

  7. Maybe I overlooked it, but does it have maps?

  8. My wife bought one for me recently as a graduation gift, and I’ve enjoyed it for many of the same reasons you mentioned. Four features I would still like to see are the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds toward the front, the ESV book introductions (which Crossway includes in virtually all of their other reference Bibles, including the PSR), concise outlines of each book (which they attempted in the short-lived Premium Thinline), and a sampling of maps and figures from The ESV Study Bible placed between the two testaments (as also seen in the Premium Thinline). These features would continue to aid those primarily interested in reading, while also greatly enhancing the reference role.

    • Jon,

      One thing that intrigues me about the Schuyler line of Bibles is that they do include the standard creeds, as well as a couple of Reformed ones. I’m not on a particular side as far as creeds go, but it is certainly something that Crossway could consider. I will say that I do sort of miss the ESV book introductions from the old PSR. Getting some historical context right before reading the book was always helpful, and so was getting an idea of what theologians think are some important points of the book. I will agree that your latter two suggestions, book intros and maps/figures, would aid in the reference role of the PRB. Too bad we can’t have custom Bibles made to our specifications! :) In the meantime, I think Crossway is doing a fantastic job of having numerous editions so that we can get close.

      Elliot

  9. Very thorough review. I have made the switch to the ESV Reference or Study Bibles for my class lessons and indepth personal study, but have been using a similar Bible to the PSR and PRB, but with NIV text for my “carry around with me” Bible.. I am going to purchase a PRB and make the switch complete.

    I have one somewhat related question…. Is there an exhaustive concordance available for the ESV translation, along the lines of Strong’s ??

    • Jeff,

      Excellent choice! I love the ESV, and I’ve found the PRB to be quite sufficient for everyday study. If I want to go more in-depth, I’ll use my MacArthur Study Bible for historical/cultural/linguistic insights, and that usually suffices for me. As for a larger concordance, a quick Google search for “ESV exhaustive concordance” shows that Crossway publishes a comprehensive–though not exhaustive–concordance by Bill Mounce, which should be worth a look.

      Elliot

  10. Thanks for the review! I purchased one today because of it. Thanks again!

  11. line mismatching tends to happen where there’s a new signature, its hard to control in such a case.

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