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The Bible's a mess, but a designer is fixing it

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'Bibliotheca' is one man's quest to make the Good Book better

Although many consider Christianity’s message a thing of beauty, the typical Bible is an ugly thing. Most editions are a mess of numbers, notes, translucent pages, and invariably tiny type. While the traditional arrangement makes for a great reference tool, it's anything but an easy read. Adam Greene, a book designer based in Santa Cruz, California, thinks he can change that with a Kickstarter for a new version of the Bible titled Bibliotheca.

Bibliotheca is the realization of Greene’s long-held desire to help others discover the Bible. The premise is at once simple and daring: to lay out the Bible as a collection of literature, rather than a single encyclopedic volume. Bibliotheca consists of four volumes, three for the Old Testament and one for the New. There are no chapter divisions, no verse numbers, and no annotations. Greene hopes this will transform the biblical text, making it as easy to read as a New York Times bestseller. This newly arranged Bible isn’t meant to appeal to a particular demographic, nor is it intended to replace the more traditional format. Instead, Greene is targeting anyone who wants to "enjoy the biblical library anew, as great literary art," and believes his creation could make people question "the ubiquity of the encyclopedic form."

"Growing up with the Bible, there were so many interpretive lenses held up to it for me," Greene tells The Verge. "As I grew older and learned more about its history, I began to see that it had been made to ‘say’ so many things to so many different ends over the past 2,000 years ... I couldn’t quite pin down what the Bible was, or why figuring out what it was mattered to me."

It wasn't until Greene was introduced to writings like N.T. Wright's Scripture and the Authority of God and Robert Alter's The Art of Biblical Narrative that he began to see the Bible as a library of liturgical texts "compiled of masterfully crafted literary art, infused by its authors with needle-sharp significance, rich symbolism, and enthralling beauty."

Every element has been carefully considered to make reading a pleasurable experience

Greene's background is in book design, and his understanding of the art behind a great book is infused into Bibliotheca. Every element of the four volumes has been carefully considered to make reading a pleasurable and distraction-free experience. It all starts with the spine and the way the volumes are bound, which together make up the first physical interaction a reader has with a book. Greene has chosen a European-style rounded spine with flat-opening sewn binding. This type of ornate binding has fallen out of favor for modern, mass-produced books, which generally have their pages glued directly to the spine, but it considerably improves readability.

Bibliotheca_spine_560

Gluing pages to a book’s spine is known as "perfect binding." It leads to a "v" shape forming in the center of the pages, causing an endless battle between reader and book to keep it from closing in on itself, and can often lead to cracks and creases along the spine. With flat-opening sewn binding, however, the pages can bend and rotate freely, allowing the two pages you're reading to sit flat. It's a more expensive and time-consuming way of building a book, but it immediately creates a more enjoyable experience.

This attention to detail extends to the text. Each page is laid out according to the measurements of the Ark of the Covenant, the chest described in Exodus that housed the tablets of the Ten Commandments. The text is left-aligned, rather than justified as in many Bibles, with each paragraph gently indented. The alignment is a simple change which Greene says will make the volumes far more readable.

"You're guaranteed the same optical rhythm on every line of text."

"Even spacing contributes to legibility, equal line length does not," Greene explains. "When typesetting, an optimal amount of space needs to be established in order to sufficiently isolate words without creating undesirable gaps. Justified text pushes and pulls on this space, and left-aligned text deploys it with absolute consistency ... You're guaranteed the same optical rhythm on every line of text."

In addition to carefully reconsidering the overall construction and layout, Greene has also crafted a pair of custom typefaces for Bibliotheca, a simple sans serif for titles, and a more adventurous typeface for the general text. His main motivation in creating what he aptly refers to as his "original book typeface" was to mimic the reverence that's given to text in Hebrew traditions, whereby a "set apart" script is used exclusively for sacred writings. Inspired by this tradition, Greene taught himself to write traditional letterforms by hand, before streamlining the letters into a coherent, idealized typeface. The result of this work is not radically different from the norm — Greene explains "a good typeface does nothing so unruly or unique as to draw undue attention to itself" — and draws inspiration from some of the last century's most influential type designers.

Bibliotheca_typeface

"The two threads that run through ... are balanced contrast and rhythmic spacing, which are interdependent," says Greene. While the positive forms (the type itself) are carefully considered, equal consideration needs to be given to the space within and between each letter. Greene poetically describes the positive forms as "dancing to the beat of the white space" they rest in, explaining that "the space within letterforms, the space interlocking letterforms as they combine to make distinct word units, and the space between word units as they combine to make fluid lines" must each be contemplated when designing a typeface.

There are other design flourishes to be found adorning Bibliotheca, including ribbon bookmarks and foil spine stamps for each volume. The pages are opaque, acid-free book paper, rather than the transparent sheets almost derogatorily referred to as "Bible paper," and will be printed using traditional offset printing. These small touches all help Greene achieve his goal of making Bibliotheca’s volumes look, feel, and most importantly, read like books rather than like a giant compendium of biblical text.

The text itself, and the splitting of the Old and New Testament into four distinct volumes, will likely be a problem for some. Greene has chosen the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, and will modify it slightly to replace archaic terms with their modern alternatives ("doth" will become "does"; "sitteth," "sits"; and so on) and will be minimally adjusting the word order from the Young's Literal Translation (YLT). This will undoubtedly sit well with American audiences, but somewhat limits the appeal in international markets like the UK, where more neutral translations such as the New International Version (NIV) and New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) are more appealing.

Many will find small issues with any translation or reworking of such a historically important text

The division of the volumes is also contentious. Although the segmentation of the Old Testament into three categories (namely "The Five Books of Moses & the Former Prophets," "The Latter Prophets," and "The Writings," which comprises everything from Psalms through to Chronicles) makes sense, grouping the entire New Testament into a single volume seems to go against the principles behind dividing the Bible in the first place. The four Gospels and Acts would make an extremely readable short novel, for example, and do not sit very well with the letters and Revelation that they precede. But while many will find small issues with any translation or reworking of such a historically important text, it’s undoubtable that Greene has put a lot of thought into making Bibliotheca appealing to as wide an audience as possible.

Bibliotheca_volumes_560

Speaking with Greene, it’s clear he has a real love for his craft. He bemoans the lack of quality first editions, and the general shift from publishers to save dollars per unit at the expense of "the aesthetic and tactile experience." He’s put hundreds of hours of work into the books already, and the long task of editing the text and laying out, printing, and binding the books awaits him after the Kickstarter campaign ends. When starting the crowdfunding drive, Greene asked for $37,000 to make Bibliotheca a reality as a small print run of 500 sets. The Kickstarter total currently stands at well over $300,000 with nearly 4,000 sets ordered, and those figures will likely rise before the campaign ends this Sunday.

Greene accepts that digital books have eaten into the market of their traditional counterparts, but doesn’t necessarily equate their rise with the end of the paper and hardbacks. "If we embrace digital forms for ephemeral content, and reserve the ‘reverence’ of a bound book for enduring literature, I think we’ll see a resurgence of intrinsically beautiful books," he explains. "We need to critically allocate proper vehicles to varied types of content, not simply treat all literature the same. Read the news on your tablet, and then curl up with your clothbound, woodcut-illustrated copy of Walden."