In 2012, First Things asked me to suggest Bibles to give as gifts during the Christmas season. Seven years later, those recommendations hold up. But there has been an explosion of interesting Bibles in the meantime, many of which I have covered at .
There’s a genre of Bible that’s ideal for gift-giving, a format that didn’t even exist when I compiled my 2012 list: the reader’s edition. These Bibles present the text in a single, paragraphed column without the intrusion of verse numbers. They look like regular books, and as a result they read like regular books, too. People who have started experiencing Scripture this way report reading more—and more often—than before, with better understanding of the text. The thing is, because these editions look so different from traditional Bibles, they can seem a little specialized. As a result, those looking for all-purpose Bibles tend to go with something safer. That’s what makes Reader’s Bibles the perfect gift. They’re the sort of thing people appreciate but are less likely to buy for themselves.
The best reader’s editions divide the biblical text among multiple volumes. Why? Because there are a lot of words in the Bible. When you pack them into a single book, the type gets really small and the paper gets razor-thin—making reading for extended periods a challenge. By breaking the text into multiple books, designers can increase the type size and print on opaque paper.
The success of Bibliotheca’s original kick-starter campaign catapulted multi-volume reader’s editions into the popular imagination. Many imitators have followed, but none are as pure an expression of the idea of the printed Bible as art object. The walnut slipcase and the five volumes (including Apocrypha) bound in a spectrum of colors that run from dark to light announce that this Bible is intended to be seen, not hidden. Inside, the text is handled with an unprecedented degree of typographical care rarely seen outside the realm of fine press printing. Writ Press also offers options without the slipcase, as well as the complete set in paperback, giving you a way to scale down based on how extraordinary a gift you are looking to give.
With its dark walnut slipcase and black leather bindings, this one is a showstopper. The width of the volumes varies from chunky to slender, but each fits nicely in the hand. Inside, the paragraphed text is styled like a fine prose work. Crossway offers the same set bound in cloth for $90, and in softcover for just $40—so you have options.
This set may not compare with the ones above when it comes to production quality and typographical finesse, but it’s an attractive option for readers of the popular NIV translation.
If you want to give someone the entire Bible in one reader-friendly volume, there are a number of options out there. Here are two of my favorites:
The first true Reader’s Bible to hit the market, and still one of the best. There are no verse numbers in the paragraphed text, but chapter numbers appear in the margins. At the top of each page, you’ll find a header that lists book, chapter, and verse range, which makes it much easier to find particular passages than you might expect. Bound in attractive cloth, the ESV Reader’s Bible comes with a slipcase for storage. I have given away a lot of these over the past few years, and know firsthand what a transformation they bring to the reading experience.
Holman publishes a multi-volume edition of CSB, but I haven’t seen it, so can’t say whether it measures up. But the single-volume definitely makes the cut. The interior layout is fresh and crisp, and the gray cloth hardcover feels good in the hand.
WONDERS AND CURIOSITIES
Let’s shift focus from reader’s editions to unusual Bibles that offer unique scholarly apparatus and design features.
Thomas Nelson teamed up with the genius designers at 2K/Denmark to solve one of the most frustrating design challenges in the world of modern Bible publishing. Whatever you think of the NET as a translation, its notes are unparalleled. Unfortunately, the sheer volume of these notes has defeated all past attempts at a print edition. The new NET Full-Notes Edition turns this weakness into a strength by taking a page from ancient annotated manuscripts, presenting the biblical text in a prominent center column with the voluminous notes in three smaller columns all around. Follow the link and take a look at the page design. The serious Bible students in your life will appreciate this gift (and so will the design nerds).
The margins of this nicely-designed single column NKJV are filled with relevant quotes from church fathers, theologians, and notable Christians past and present.
This isn’t a Bible, but no one who loves Scripture should be without this large-format anthology of illustrated summaries of each book of the Bible. At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss as a coffee table comic book. In fact, it’s much more. The quality of the outlines is superb, and the artwork helps map the flow of each book’s argument in your mind.
This could have gone with the other multi-volume sets, because the ESV Scripture Journal divides the entire Bible into forty-six volumes. In this case, each softcover booklet features the biblical text on one side of the spread and a lined page for journaling on the other. (There’s also a more colorful set intended for artistic expression.) You can buy individual volumes and smaller sets, too. This is the kind of gift that sparks an interest in using and interacting with Scripture.
Sometimes you want to give a different kind of gift, an heirloom quality Bible. There are still a few publishers who specialize in exquisitely bound leather editions. You cannot go wrong with any edition published by Cambridge University Press, the world’s oldest continuous publisher of Bibles, and the same is true for Schuyler, a relatively new publisher that has earned a reputation for quality.
Although the Topaz is a new addition to the Cambridge lineup, it features a very traditional format. The text is set in two columns with references off to the side, and each verse starts a new line—the way old-fashioned Bibles used to be before the rise of paragraphing. This doesn’t aid readability, but it’s great for finding particular verses. Don’t let the traditional styling fool you, either. This is a modern typeset that brings the maximum degree of usability to its old-school design.
The Canterbury is a nostalgic layout with elegant decorative touches, the King James Version the way you remember it (though it was probably never quite this cool). Schuyler offers the Canterbury in a whole range of options. There’s the original in limp goatskin, the smaller Personal Size, and also a line of wide-margin editions. But the one I’m suggesting is the hardcover bound in cowhide with fancy marbled endpapers, a beautiful complement to the interior design. The Canterbury comes in a printed slipcase, too.
J. Mark Bertrand is the author of several novels, including the 2012 Christy Award finalist Pattern of Wounds. He writes about Bible design and binding at BibleDesignBlog.com.