A Case for Reader’s Bibles–and Reader’s Books of Mormon

1.

Back in 2008, as the Amazon Kindle e-reader was coming-of-age and people wondering if printed books would make it, Alan Jacobs suggested three ideas about the future of books. He hypothesized that (1) reference works would be read dominantly online, because hyperlinks are so great for reference (think of Wikipedia); that (2) narrative books, like history and novels, would be best read on the Kindle, because there is a forward momentum with e-readers–you can’t skip around, you can only go forward or back a page, and that creates a momentum; and that (3) the traditional, printed book “will be the best home for works that need to be lingered over, meditated, considered with care.”

This came to my mind today–partly because I was perusing the Bible Design blog–and I started to think about how I read scripture, which seem to fall into Alan Jacobs’ third bucket: works that need to be lingered over, and considered with care. That got me thinking about we read scripture as a church. In wards and branches, we have forgotten print scriptures. Nearly everyone reads scriptures on our phones. And if we do have a printed set of scriptures, we settle for the familiar, 2013 editions that are sold in Deseret Book.

I rarely see anyone with printed scriptures. Makes sense–it’s one less thing to carry. We leave our bulky scriptures behind, and use our phones at church; we enjoy the ability to take notes and highlight things, and leap around the scriptures at will. But what we use to read changes how we read. “The medium is the message.” And I’ve been pausing to consider: what difference does it make when I’m reading scripture on my phone, and in print? (And what difference does it make what kind of print editions I use?)

Consider: if I read scriptures on my phone, I’m encouraged to move about: to click on footnotes, to swipe to see resources from the side, to jump from hyperlink to hyperlink. And that’s if I don’t succumb to the temptation to check our notifications, or swipe to see another app. (Spoiler: I often do.) In many ways, reading digitally makes this kind of behavior almost inevitable.

This way of moving about what we’re reading–even when it’s scripture–has a place. I love the scripture resources on LDS.org. I love that in an instant, I can access a range of resources from my phone or computer: LDS commentary from BYU’s Citation Index and Book of Mormon Central; Christian historical and literary commentary from Faithlife and the Netbible; and even Jewish and rabbinic commentary from Sefaria. In addition, there are printed reference works that I can draw on. Popular and reliable study Bibles like the Oxford NRSV, the Jewish Study Bible, the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, and even our own Thomas Wayment’s new translation of the New Testament (replete with helpful study notes) are also available.

My collection of study Bibles and reference works.

And we need better study bibles, especially as Latter-day Saints. The footnotes in our current print and leather editions are lacking. The context afforded by a quality study bible is invaluable, and brings us into engagement with modern Christian scholarship on the history and literary nature of the Bible. That’s important. Don’t get me wrong. More of us need to know about, and draw on, the wonderful resources that different translations of the Bible–set in various study bibles with maps and footnotes of every kind–provide.

On the left: Matthew 21 in the Oxford NRSV study edition. On the right: Romans 12-13 in LDS Scholar Thomas Wayment’s study edition.

But whether in print or online, these reference works do not encourage sustained encounter with the text. They encourage encounters with verses and chapters, yes. But after a short perusal of a passage, we notice the clickable hyperlinks or notes at the bottom of the page, which call and beg for our attention. And often, we follow–always learning something, often many things, and some of it valuable. But there is still much to be said about a sustained encounter with the text.

It could be said that a principal problem in our day is that our default mode of interaction is to treat scripture more like a reference work, moving about, and less like a book, standing relatively still.

2.

In a 2012 Slate article “What Will Become of the Paper Book?,” Michael Agresta wrote:

Bookshelves will survive in the homes of serious digital-age readers, but their contents will be much more judiciously curated. The next generation of paper books will likely rival the art hanging beside them on the walls for beauty, expense, and “aura”—for better or for worse.

Michael Agresta

J. Mark Bertrand, picking up on this idea, wrote a provocatively titled article, “Are Bible Apps destined to Purify the Printed Word?” He begins the article by detailing the history of the Bible, highlighting two major inventions that each transformed how we read the Good Book: first, the invention of the codex, which moved the Bible from a collection of scrolls into a single, bound book; and second, the Gutenberg printing press, which ushered in the Reformation and a new age of Biblical literacy. The Bible became available to millions of Christians, in their own languages, to be held in their own hands–all radical things, for the time. Then, he brings the story up to our day: the age of the digital book. Asking whether the demise of the printed Bible is inevitable, he argues that any reported death is in fact greatly exaggerated.

… the printed Bible is not under threat. If anything the advent of e-books has ushered in a renaissance of sorts for the physical form of the Good Book. The fulfillment of the hypertext dream by digital Bibles has cleared the way for printed Bibles to pursue other ends. The most exciting reinvention of the printed Scriptures is the so-called reader’s Bible, a print edition designed from the ground up not as a reference work but as a book for deep, immersive reading.

J. Mark Bertrand

This call for a deep, immersive experience is compelling. Our attention has been called our “most important asset.” But whole industries and self-help books have emerged to explain how and why our capacity for attention is slowly eroding. This year is the tenth anniversary of Nicholas Carr’s much lauded “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.” In it, he describes a feeling we might all relate to: a slow realization that sitting down to read a book (or any lengthy essay) was becoming rarer, and more difficult. The internet, and the entire infrastructure of phones and devices that connect with it, change our brains–quite literally. And as good as the Gospel Library is, it too can take part in that process of eroding our capacity for attention:

In a world of intrusive technology, we must engage in a kind of struggle if we wish to sustain moments of solitude. E-reading opens the door to distraction. It invites connectivity and clicking and purchasing. The closed network of a printed book, on the other hand, seems to offer greater serenity. It harks back to a pre-jacked-in age. Cloth, paper, ink: For these read helmet, cuirass, shield. They afford a degree of protection and make possible a less intermediated, less fractured experience. They guard our aloneness.

Mohsin Hamid, “How Do E-Books Change the Reading Experience?”

“A less intermediated, less fractured experience.” Isn’t that what we want? If, as Mary Oliver has written, attention is the beginning of devotion–then we need to do everything we can to develop, and guard, our capacity for attention.

3.

So what? Where do we turn, both as Christians and Latter-day Saints, to attend to scripture in a sustained and devoted way? In an age of feature creep, J Bertrand Russell offers this suggestion, specifically referring to the study bibles:

Reading from a study or reference edition can sometimes feel like watching a movie for the first time with the cast-and-crew commentary turned on. The information is helpful, yes, but it can sure get in the way of the film. I can understand the desire to pack a Bible full of extras. The challenge of designing such a text can be exhilarating. But the easiest way to prevent all the features from getting in the way of Scripture is not to design around them. It is to cut the features. An unmediated — or at least, minimally mediated — design might have just one feature: readability. But that’s a pretty good feature to have.

J. Mark Bertrand, interview for 2k/stories

The principle Bertrand is suggesting: readability is an exercise in subtraction. This can be difficult. But it can be done.

Perhaps no one has done this better for the Bible than Crossway. This publishing house owns the English Standard Version, a translation I’m drawn to both because it’s very, very good as a translation–and because everything Crossway does pays close attention to the readability of the text. In particular, they’ve done a lot for reader’s bibles, which as you can guess, strip out much of the extras. What is left is text–in some cases, just the text–set on pages with wide margins, single columns, and beautiful typography. (Just like it should be.)

Consider their ESV Reader’s Bible. Take a look at how the pages are formatted: aside from the red text, indicating shifts in chapter, the first pages of Genesis read like a story–the greatest story ever told.

Pages from the ESV Reader’s Bible. You can see the full excerpt in PDF here and watch a short video about it here.

It is, as Genesis says, “very good.” J. Mark Bertrand’s review of it is comprehensive, and he calls attention to design choices that are invisible to those of us (myself included) who frequently take book design for granted: the opacity and thickness of the paper, the quality of the binding, the typography–it is all combined into one, marvelous experience. It is bookmaking (scripturemaking) as an art form.

The six-volume set, released later, has considerably more room to work with. Pictures below. And again, see an excerpt here.

The six-volume set. Picture from Crossway’s website.

Unlike the single-volume Reader’s Bible, the six-volume set does not have to compact so many things. Therefore the margins and the spacing between letters and lines and words have more room to breathe. It is incredible.

Crossway is not the only one publishing these. Consider Bibliotheca, another fine reader’s Bible, also in a set. J. Mark Bertrand titled his review of it “Bibliotheca, Mon Amour”: Bibliotheca, my love.

Taken from their website. Go there for pictures of the pages.

Lovely, isn’t it? I particularly love the gradients of each book in the set, in addition to the custom typeface that the creator designed for the site. You can see more of how he designed it here.

Now, these are whole Bibles. But even small books of the Bible can be printed and set. When we were reading the New Testament in Come, Follow Me last year, I was struggling to get “into” Paul. Even after reading N.T. Wright’s excellent biography of Paul, I had a hard time reading through his letters. I was wishing that I could read his letters more like its first hearers: stripped of chapters and verses, forcing me to pay attention to the larger themes of scripture.

Enter Crossway’s Reader’s Letters of Paul. Beautiful, compact, and eminently readable. And relatively inexpensive! Take a look below. (If you want a more detailed look, here is a PDF excerpt from the book.)

My copy of Crossway’s Reader’s Letters of Paul.

Reading Paul here did not solve all my problems. I still consulted notes and study notes to make sense of some of Paul’s finer arguments. But for the first time, I was honoring something that the New Testament scholar and pastor N.T. Wright had once said:

The Bible was not primarily written in order to be read in 10 verse chunks. We have cut the Bible down to size. Now, obviously there are some bits like the Psalms, and like some passages — the book of James is written in very short bursts — but most of it including Paul’s letters and certainly the Gospels and certainly great books like Isaiah and so on are read in order to be experienced the way you experience a symphony.

Imagine if you were to a concert and you got the first 10 bars of Beethoven 5, and then the conductor turned around and said, “Okay, that’s all for this week, come back the same time next week, and we’ll have the next ten bars.” You would think, “Wait…” And if somebody said, “Oh, but if you listen to the whole thing you’d never remember it all, you’d think, “Well, that’s not the point.” You don’t listen to it in order to remember — you will remember quite a lot of it — you listen to it in order to be swept along in the full flow and sweep and flood of it. And I grieve over the fact that there are many many Christians who have never ever read one of the Gospels or even one of the epistles straight through at a sitting…

N.T. Wright, “The Whole Sweep of scripture”

Now, it is a challenge to read whole books in one sitting. Some take a very long time. But when I was reading Paul, I made a determination–to read his letters all the way through. I wanted to imagine myself as if I was a follower of the Way–which is what the early Christians called the Jesus movement–who had just received a letter from this apostle of the Lord. I remember reading Phillipians all the way through. And then again, each day, for two weeks. I cannot tell you all the specific parts of the letter, but I can tell you the tone: it is a tone of joy. It is bursting with joy. And all the more remarkable because he was in prison. Having read it in full, made far easier with the Reader’s Letters of Paul, I have come to love that letter. I read it whenever I am tempted to despair. Imagine being able to do something like this, but for individual books of The Book of Mormon, or specific sets of revelation? (Imagine: a Reader’s Kirtland Revelations, or a Reader’s Book of Alma.)

4.

Dan Carlin, host of the popular (and endlessly entertaining) Hardcore History podcast, likes to say that “history has ruined fiction” for him–meaning, that history is so much more interesting than fiction, once it’s known. Borrowing from that formulation, reader’s bibles have ruined reference bibles (and many scripture apps) for me.

As Latter-day Saints, we need to make the scriptures come to life for us–and our children. This begins by reading scripture, and being intimately familiar with it. I have spent most of the time so far gushing about Bibles. But what of our other, Restoration scripture?

When it comes to reformatting and repackaging Restoration scripture to make things more readable, The Book of Mormon has received the most attention so far. Unlike the Bible, it was originally published as a book in single-column pages, with much larger chapters and no verse markings. The chapter divisions were changed (increased from 114 to 239) by Orson Pratt in 1879, who also added our modern verse divisions. And the pages moved from single-column to double-column in the 1920 edition. These changed allowed The Book of Mormon to look more like Bibles of the day–but in the process, made readability a more difficult goal.

As important as these modern divisions have been, we have begun a welcome trend back toward readability, largely thanks to Yale professor and Latter-day Saint Grant Hardy. In 2003, through the University of Illinois Press, he published The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition. There are several reasons Hardy undertook this effort–among them, making it easier for friends of his to approach it–but my favorite is this one:

My wife, Heather, is an astonishingly good reader. I was teaching at the time, and I came home from work one day, and she said, “Oh, I read 100 pages in the Book of Mormon today.” Something like—certainly first and second Nephi—this morning. And she said, “It’s just not . . . there’s not that much there.” She said, “I went to Seminary. I went to Sunday School. I’ve read it a bunch of times. I know the stories. I know the basic doctrines. It’s really repetitive, and it’s awkward.” And she said, “I think I’ve gotten pretty much what I can get out of it.” She tossed it across the room. And I said, “Let me get you a Book of Mormon you can read. I think there’s more there. Let me see what I can do.” So, I had this project. She actually worked with me on this project, and it’s the best gift I’ve ever given anyone perhaps—other than giving my daughter’s phone number to the guy she married, but that’s a different story. I gave Heather a Book of Mormon that she could read, and she taught me how to read it—often reading it for several hours a day and sees all kinds of astonishing things and connections and patterns in it.

Grant Hardy, LDS Perspectives podcast

This endeavor benefited not only Hardy and his wife, but also myself. I encountered this edition in college, and for the first time, I began to recognize larger patterns in The Book of Mormon, such as who the main narrators are (Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni) and how their contributions shaped the structure of the book. I also began to notice little details, such as how the Amalackiahite Wars–which range from Alma 43 to Alma 63–are fought on two fronts. Suddenly, “the war chapters” became more than just war chapters. The logic and flow of some of the largest books in Restoration scripture began to make sense. Additionally, the passages of Isaiah found in The Book of Mormon are set in poetic form, allowing you to more easily see where the difference in poetry and prose lie.

Now, many years later, the Maxwell Institute Study Edition of The Book of Mormon has been published, this edition designed more for members of the church. While it bills itself as a “study edition,” it doubles as a reader’s Book of Mormon. It has the chapter and verse numbers–both the original chapter numbers, provided in Roman numerals, and the modern chapter divisions, given in Arabic numerals. The text is set in paragraphs and, where applicable, poetic lines; pages are set in single columns; the verses are small and superscripted; and the footnotes offer new and rich insights about the allusions found within the book, and the changes across multiple printings. In addition, each book is prefaced with a beautiful woodcut printing by Brian Kershisnik.

Jacob 1 in the Maxwell Institute Study Edition, featuring original woodcut images by Brian Kershisnik
3 Nephi 17 in the Maxwell Institute Study Edition, possibly my favorite chapter in the Book of Mormon.

These editions are fantastic. I mentioned earlier how these reader’s editions had ruined apps for me. Well, I can hardly go back to reading the Book of Mormon in the traditional, Church-published editions, for all the reasons I just described: the easy-on-the-eyes paragraphs and poetic lines; the single column pages; the barely visible versification; the typography; the wood-cut printings; even the footnotes, far more spare than what the Church has produced, are incredibly rich and valuable.

(While it’s very good as a study edition, I would quite like to see a more readerly-centered edition, akin to the Reader’s Bibles shown above: one with wider margins, type with more room to breathe, and no versification or titles at all. I’d also love to see this published, perhaps, in a multi-volume set (a lá the multi-volume Reader’s Bibles), perhaps divided by the contributions of Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni.

While these two editions by Grant Hardy are the most prominent examples of printing the Book of Mormon in a readable format, they are not the only instances of the Spirit moving to make our important scripture more readable. Ben Crowder, a talented software engineer at the BYU Library, has prepared a reader’s edition himself–which you can download or purchase as a print edition. Nathan Richardson, a speech therapist and book designer, has made a “do-it-yourself” scripture formatting template, which provides the Book of Mormon in a word document. This file comes without verse numbers, the original chapter breaks, or punctuation, it allows you to participate in the project of making the text more readable. (And if this intrigues you, he’s offered this with the Doctrine and Covenants and other standard works, too.)

A selection from Ben Crowder’s reader’s edition of the Book of Mormon
Nathan Richardson’s unstructured edition

(Both Crowder and Richardson also provide editions of their reader’s editions in print, for a cost. I encourage you to take a look.)

We do not yet have any reader’s editions of the Doctrine and Covenants, or the Book of Moses. Pearl of Great Price Central has put out a study edition of the Book of Abraham–a good start in making this important book approachable. It places the book in a single column with subtle headers and footnotes. These are important frontiers for us to push through, with new opportunities awaiting us.

5.

Whether it be from scholars like Hardy, or hobbyists like Crowder and Richardson, or groups like Book of Mormon / Pearl of Great Price Central, the important work of making our scripture more approachable and readable has begun. The Spirit has begun to move within our church–and in history–providing the Body of Christ with new tools and formats for “feasting upon the word of Christ” (2 Nephi 31:20). Recall J. Mark Bertrand’s quote from earlier:

The fulfillment of the hypertext dream by digital Bibles has cleared the way for printed Bibles to pursue other ends. The most exciting reinvention of the printed Scriptures is the so-called reader’s Bible, a print edition designed from the ground up not as a reference work but as a book for deep, immersive reading.

J. Mark Bertrand

Scripture mastery is more than memorizing twenty-five verses from the Book of Mormon: it is understanding the whole of the book, and the larger message it tells. Consider the Book of Mormon: it is a tragic story, a story Grant Hardy once called “a tragedy… an unrelenting record of human folly and ruin.” But it is also a story of a God who has made promises to His children: a God who weeps, and a God who covenants, and a God who desires His children return. The sweep of the Old, New, and “Other” Testaments–as well as the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price–is a testimony to God’s love; to the reality of Jesus Christ; and to the truth that God speaks to us today. He cares, he loves us, and he bids us return.

It is vital that we not only memorize the doctrines and principles from scripture, but that we are familiar with the messages of the larger books: the drama of Genesis and Exodus; the prophetic poetry of the Psalms; the intense prophecies of Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah about the exile; the bold tale of the Gospels, of the son of God Jesus Christ, and his life, death, and resurrection; of Paul’s preaching, boldly, to the Saints in the early church, to the apocalypse of Revelation. Then there is the dramatic tale told on Nephi’s small plates, and his concerns for his people expressed both in Psalm and in prophecy; and Mormon’s retrospective record, looking back and seeing how Nephi’s worries and woes played out, and preserving these lessons for Gentiles in a later day. And of course, there is other scripture, the dramatic history told in-between the lines in the Doctrine and Covenants, of a young man’s quest to meet God again–this time, not in an Eastern desert, but in an American grove–and being called as a Prophet, and leading this church, moment by moment, question by question, with new revelations come in response to those moments.

This is the sweeping tale of scripture, which preserves a record of one God and many peoples striving to observe His will and fulfill a covenant that extends from here back to Abraham: the covenant to be a holy people, blessing all the nations, preparing themselves and all the earth to live in a world remade by God.

If we only read scripture in small sections and chunks, and never allow ourselves the opportunity to be lost in the story, will we ever gain the familiarity with scripture that God has called us to? Not just familiarity with the Book of Mormon, but with the Biblical tales as well? We may not. We need to mature in our understanding of scripture; but we must read it first. Reading is always the first challenge. And scriptures, printed in formats that making reading nearly inevitable, is a good first step, especially in an age where one of our many, many challenges is simply how to pay attention. For me, finding time not just to study, but to read scripture–to feast on the word–is a key part of meeting that challenge. Reader’s bibles have dramatically reshaped my ability to, well, read the Bible! We, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, need something similar. As I learned with Paul last year, and the Book of Mormon this year, editions of scripture stripped of the extra material can help us read them–deeply, immersively–as they were intended to be read: in full. With a good Reader’s Bible–and even a Book of Mormon set in a single column–I find it easier to read, and engage with, God’s sacred word.

Let me end this plea with actual pleas, questions for our Church. Where is our Crossway, our publisher who will print God’s word with utmost care and attention to detail? Where is our Reader’s Book of Mormon, set in one, or many volumes? (And our Reader’s Doctrine and Covenants and Book of Moses and Holy Bible, too?) Who will produce beautiful, readable books that create the conditions for sustained attention, “the beginning of devotion”? What typographers, and publishers, and designers, and artists, and businessmen, and others will conspire to craft beautiful books to shape and form our souls in ways that digital resources–valuable reference works though they are–cannot? I think as we meet these questions, our familiarity with scripture will enhance; and our ability to meet God where we are will grow too.

2 Replies to “A Case for Reader’s Bibles–and Reader’s Books of Mormon”

  1. Really interesting. A few thoughts. First, I wonder if you see any potential for deep value in a heavily glossed work such as the Talmud or the Glossa Ordinaria. Personally, I find the pages themselves astonishingly beautiful, and feel like there is deep meaning and connection to be found in encountering the text in the context of your ancestors’ readings. This is how my fathers read, and understood, and loved these verses. The gloss certainly dominates the page, but I think I could see and argument for that kind of immersive marginalia deepening scriptural encounter, not distracting from it. (Of course, notable people would disagree including Martin Luther, John Wycliffe, John Calvin, and Thomas Tyndall and basically every Protestant reformer ever.)

    On the other hand, I have never felt so connected to the Book of Mormon as when I have attempted to rewrite it for my child, which, as you say, is largely a work of subtraction. I bare the story down to it’s core elements to allow Christ to shine through all the clearer. At least, that is the hope.

    But I do think I tend to rely too much on digital scriptures. It’s far too easy for me to look on the Wikipedia articles when I feel like the Sunday school discussion has stalled. I’d much rather get distracted by Brian Kershisnik artwork while reading 😉.

    1. I hadn’t heard of the Glossa Ordinaria until your comment, Sarah. And they look so interesting! And yes, I agree with you that those are valuable. Bradley Kramer talks in his book Beholding the Tree of Life a bit about Talmudic study and what Latter-day Saints can learn from it. And I know Grant Hardy has said that the Etz Hayim, a Jewish text of the Torah with three running commentaries, is a favorite of his. So yes, I see potential.

      I think what I’m trying to say–and the first audience for this essay is myself, really–is to rely less on digital scriptures and less still on study Bibles, which I’ve gone crazy over lately. (You can tell from the snapshot on my bookshelf.) And start by reading the text: appreciating the entire, literary beauty of the books that I read. I think The Bible Project is another good example of a tool that’s meant to help you see the unity of each book: they have an animated video (and corresponding poster) on each and every Biblical book, showing how it has a unique message and theology, and how that works together. That’s another resource that, together with Reader’s scripture, primes and prepares us to do something that most of us don’t do enough: just read the scripture, with the subtraction, as you say, and seeing the beautiful message of whole books. It’s impossible to do when our default mode is to study small passages out of context, a mode we rarely exit. Hence the post.

      (And I must say, that I love the idea of rewriting the Book of Mormon for your child. I highlighted Nathan Richardson’s templates for reformatting the Book of Mormon, but actually retranslating it, that’s brilliant. Is that what your blog is doing with the “For Little Saints” series? That’s wonderful. My friend Marissa has a blog where she takes Adam Miller’s quote on translation seriously, and retranslates scripture for herself and us today. It’s a similar idea you may appreciate.)

      All that said, I would love an Ordinaria Glossia, and perhaps Latter-day Saint versions. Can you imagine a curated repurposing of the Scripture Citation project-printed editions of each scriptural book, but with curated prophetic commentary on the side, with an emphasis on deep insight as well as showcasing the different theological interpretations and schools within our own community? Perhaps even including takes from people like Terryl Givens, George Handley, Eugene England, Sterling McMurrin, BH Roberts, etc? I mean–that would be SO COOL.

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