Monday, December 26, 2016

Guest Review: Bibliotheca

After a two year delay, the Kickstarter star project Bibliotheca was finally delivered to original financial backers.  Did it live up to the hype?  In a word, yes.

For full product specs, photos, and video, I recommend that you browse the Bibliotheca website.

This is what you get: Bibliotheca is based on a new revision of the American Standard Version; four additional sources were used for the Apocrypha, which was not part of the ASV.  Given the unexpected funding, the project hired a small team of scholars and editors to not only replace archaic pronouns throughout with their modern equivalents, but also to modestly smooth out some of the rougher passages.  The result is a translation that remains very formal and beautiful, while avoiding the woodenness and archaism that makes the original ASV itself difficult.  This smoother text pairs with Bibliotheca’s primary physical design features to encourage reading large quantities of text in a single sitting, much the way a person would read a novel or book of poetry.

That concept of reading for reading’s sake drove the most significant design choice: the physical form.  Bibliotheca is available in two variants, with or without the Apocrypha.  The edition with Apocrypha comes in five volumes, allowing for thick opaque beautiful paper instead of the usual wisp-thin paper in most modern Bibles.  It employs a custom typeface for optimal reading ease.  The single column layout of each page is based on proportions proven in studies to be the most appealing to widest range of people.  The columns are not so wide that the eye might grow tired, there is plenty of space between each line of text, and the use of left-justified text rather than fully justified text creates fully consistent space between words.  The paper’s uniform cream color and smooth feel are both visually and tactilely attractive.  The use of multiple volumes results in each book being light enough to hold for extended reading.

What is truly intriguing, though, is the complete lack of anything on the page except the text and page number.  There are no verse or chapter numbers, no headers, no notes, no references, nothing at the top or bottom of the page.  Nothing.  Even the title of every book is printed alone on a separate page so that the first words start on a page with nothing else on it.  There is nothing on the page at all to distract you from reading the text.  Indeed, the spartan lack of anything other than the text is almost itself a distraction.

Bibliotheca is equal measures humble simplicity and exceptional construction. It's practically Benedictine in its understated beauty.

For all of these reasons noted so far, I believe Bibliotheca is easily the best devotional Bible on the market today.  Devotional reading is to me the simple act of reading and nothing more.  I’m not reading for study, or to prepare a sermon, or to prepare for apologetic debate.  I am spending time with sacred scripture only for the relationship experience.  When reading from a Bible like Bibliotheca, the complete lack of anything but the words of scripture mean I can not do anything more than read.  Sure, I can find on what page a given book of the Bible starts, but after that the only guide of any kind becomes the single ribbon marker in each volume.

This supports a style of reading I have advocated for more than a year now: Immersive big picture reading.  Reading all of Romans, for example, or all of Isaiah, in a single sitting offers a very different perspective, one that is often lost on us when we insist on deeply studying a single verse or a single word as it is used across multiple books.  Minute reading like that is like trying to understand a forest by examining the individual cells of a leaf under a microscope. There’s a place for that, sure.  But don’t forget to fly up and look at the whole broad vista, too.  Bibliotheca encourages that big picture view.

I am grateful that Bibliotheca offers an edition with the Apocrypha.  While it may not place the books in the Catholic order, the Apocrypha volume does a few things like no other Bible containing the Apocrypha.  First, it includes all of the books used by not only Catholics but also the various Greek and Eastern Orthodox traditions.  Second, the books are grouped by related content (for example, all four books of the Maccabees are together) rather than by associated canon (as found in the RSV and NRSV).  Third, not only is the complete text of the Greek version of Esther from the Septuagint provided, but so is the complete text of the Greek version of Daniel from the Septuagint.  Further, the chapters for Daniel are provided in the Orthodox order, unlike the NRSV with Apocrypha which merely offers the extra content in 3 separate sections, or the Catholic NRSV which merely appends the Greek content to the end of Daniel.

Two more features of Bibliotheca stand out for me.  The first should not have been a surprise, but it was: The Psalms are not uniquely identified with title or number.  They do not start with “Psalm 1” or “Psalm 23” or any of that.  The Psalms are presented as untitled and unidentified poetry.  It fits with the overall design, but it’s easily the one place where the lack of such referents stands out starkly.  The second feature, though, is one I do appreciate:  Prose is set as prose, and poetry is set as poetry.  This was not something the ASV in any of it’s early 20th century print editions ever did.  I prefer the poetry layout, and given the single column layout the poetry in Bibliotheca is truly beautiful to see and to read.  What becomes intriguing to me, though, is to wonder how the editorial team decided what is and is not poetry.  The Psalms are obvious.  Much of the Prophets and some sections of the historical books are obvious.  Less obvious was the decision to render not only 1 Corinthians 13 in its entirety but also the verses immediately preceding and following it as a single poetical construct.  Or to NOT render Philippians 2:5-11 as poetry.

I think most readers will be delighted with Bibliotheca’s presentation of the Bible, even if you might disagree with certain individual design choices.  It’s simplicity coupled with excellent construction make Bibliotheca a worthy addition to every Christian’s bookshelf.

Thank you to my friend Jason, who has posted as guest on this blog before, for this fantastic guest post.  By the way, I was an early supporter as well, sponsoring the NT edition.  I will comment at some point as well, perhaps as a comment in this post.


Jim said...

Thanks for the wonderful review. I was an early supporter of this effort, yet, after great length of time with no updates (as to the production delays), and a very long time of dense emptiness, I backed out. In addition, I had some concern with the choice of scripture translation. I won't be buying this edition, yet (as usual) a moan emits from deep within...Where are such Catholic editions? I'm glad there are two (somewhat) similar editions available: The ESV six volume reader's Bible, and the Bibliotheca edition. Kudos to both for taking the time and effort to produce fine quality, accessible Bibles.

Jerry Mc Kenna said...

It looks like a great idea, though I am a bit uncomfortable with the Psalms not being numbered. Even when I am a reading fiction I like to go back and re-read sections. My main reason for rejecting this is simply budget. I buy all my books online and in good quality used versions and this won't be available used for a long time. I do hope the project meets with success.

Michael Demers said...

I'm guessing they left out "Jehovah".

Jon in the Nati said...

This was my primary reservation regarding this project. I dislike use of either Yahweh or Jehovah, and such use is not in keeping with the principles of Liturgiam Authenticam.

Can anyone confirm that the Divine Name has been dropped in this edition?

Francesco said...

According to a commenter on the "Bible Design Blog" (David, 12/23/2016) who just received his copy it renders the tetragrammaton as "YHWH".

Michael Demers said...

Little bit pricey but it comes out to $35-36 per volume if you order the 5-volume hard cover set. I'm not sure how you can improve such a literal translation without a lot of work.

Jason Engel said...

It's more expensive now. Original backers of the Kickstarter project only paid $75 (well, and waited 2.5 years) for the 5-volume set.

Jason Engel said...

I expected copies to appear on ebay by now, surprised not one has been put up yet.

Adam Boyd said...

Read my review of the American Literary Version translation used in Bibliotheca at the following link:

Unknown said...

Is there a Catholic translation 'reading Bible' or is this translation in conformity with Church teaching?