Saturday, December 20, 2008

Ghost hunting

From the FAQ on J. Mark Bertrand's Bible Design and Binding blog:

Q. Isn't it frivolous to talk about the design of Bibles instead of the content?

You'll get no argument from me. It's much better to read a Bible that falls apart after a year of use than to own a finely-made edition that sits on the shelf, nothing more than an objet d'art. To be honest, though, when people make snide remarks about the superficial focus of the blog, as they occasionally do, I'm inclined to point out that a discussion like this isn't any more frivolous than just about every discussion taking place online. With so many English translations of the Bible in print, and so much substantial agreement between them, is it frivolous to discuss the instances where they differ? Not if translation is your passion. The same is true for design. It's not the most urgent issue in the world, but that's just fine. I wouldn't enjoy conversation very much if we were only permitted to shout.

And consider this: while design might seem invisible, it has a major impact on the way readers experience the text. I discovered this firsthand by reformatting the text of the KJV for college-age students. When the words looked right, they were much easier to understand than before. Good design can enhance a good translation, and improve a poor one.

Though we might not often think about it this way, a book is a technology for reading. When we spend time with our eyes focused on little ink squiggles ranged across a sea of white paper, the ink and the paper transform; a whole is created that is more than the sum of these elements. In this transformation, information is communicated.

In order to be read, the physical corpus of a book must, of course, be visible. However, in the process of reading, the book also becomes strangely invisible. What we seem to see, what we focus on, are the meanings and information that arise from the transformation of the ink squiggles and paper, not the squiggles and paper itself. And yet, we would not have any information conveyed at all if we did not focus entirely on the ink squiggles and paper itself.

In other words, if we want to talk precisely about the "there" of reading, we might find that this "there" is somewhat hard to pin down. Our mind's eye gets invovled, and these strange creatures we call "author's voice" and "intention" demand negotiation, the past and elsewhere bargaining with the here and the now. It can get confusing.

If you haven't spent time yet exploring Mark Bertrand's excellent blog posts about Bible construction, let me suggest this as a good starting point. I haven't been in contact with Mark yet, and I am not sure he shares my deep (and theory-laden) cynicism about mass-market Bible production. However, I have nothing but praise for what I have seen so far in my explorations of his site. I especially like his commitment to thinking of the end-user of a Bible (whatever the style or denominational commitment) as a reader, and not (as is too-often the case) as a consumer.

Which brings us back to the point made in his FAQ above. When a reader is at work, she does not consume - she creates. A reader is an active participant in the establishment of meanings from interaction with ink squiggles and paper. The book is not consumed in this process - though we can definitely point to books published with cheap materials and bindings that are damaged by this process. But, as Mark points out, this needn't always be the case.

What I am most fascinated by, however, is this matter of invisible design, hinted at above. The book is a technology, part of media technology. This means that the Bible, as a book, is a medium. As a medium, it can be seen both as a conveyance and as a conjurer of spirits - Holy and otherwise.

When we look at the Bible, when we look at this book, we see the book itself - but we also see invisible things. Meanings, intentions, designs, fonts, heft, interactivity, quality, smells, paper thickness - each of these tangibly and intangibly shapes our experience of the Bible as a book, and this is true for whatever Bible we happen to be holding.

In looking at the materiality of Scripture, we are chasing ghosts by focusing on the concrete object in front of us.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Standard Bible Society blog post on the history of printed Scripture

I ran across this just now, and figured I'd post a link to it. The Standard Bible Society (marketers of the "English Standard Version") have a blog, and back in 2006 they posted this article celebrating the birthday of movable-type Bibles.

You can read the post in its entirety here.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Denis McQuail's typologies of "media bias"

Denis McQuail, Mass Communication Theory: An Introduction, (London: Sage Publications, 1994)

-----., Media Performance: Mass Communication and the Public Interest, (London: Sage Publications, 1992)

Doron Mendels, The Media Revolution in Early Christianity: An Essay on Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman's, 1999)

I stumbled across this typology this morning, and it got me thinking, so I thought I would post it, since it seems to speak to some of the matters of "unseen things encoded in Bibles" that I am trying to explore here.

I am quoting a paragraph from Mendels's Media Revolution in Early Christianity (a book worthy of review in its own post - I'll get to that in the coming weeks):

McQuail proceeds to offer a typology of bias that distinguishes two basic variables: "hidden" or "open," on the one hand; and "intended" or "unitended," on the other [McQuail 1992, 193-195]. The cross classification of these two variables yields four main types of non-objective or biased news performance. First, there is partisanship, an open and intended bias that is "normally identified in the structure of news media by its form (editorial leading article, opinion column, forum or access slot, letter, paid adverstisement). In such cases, the convention is to separate partisan from objective sections." Second, there is propaganda, a hidden and intended bias that is "more difficult to deal with, partly because the intention is concealed. It can often occur in the form of objective news, for instance, as information (or 'disinformation') supplied to news media by spokespersons, public relations sources, interest or pressure groups; or 'pseudo-events' staged to gain media coverage or attract an audience.... The most problematic feature of propaganda, defined like this, is the near impossibility of identifying it in the news output in any certain or systematic way." Third, there is unwitting bias, an "open, but unintentional, bias in the selection of topics, events and news angles" that can usually be recognized in "systematic patterns of preferential attention or avoidance which are not justified by any statistical reality, but where there is no reason to suspect propagandist purpose." Fourth, there is ideology, defined as "hidden but unintended bias, embedded in texts" and stemming from the enduring values of the newsmakers themselves [Mendels 1999, 18-19].

Within what might be called American Bible culture, by which I mean not only the books themselves, but Christian bookstores and faith-oriented radio and television stations, as well as many of the political rhetorics that are deployed in campaigns and around various legislative issues, we can certainly see aspect of all four fields of this typology at work. For example, Focus on the Family has this year been engaged in partisanship with regard to retail establishments that they surmise to be sufficiently (or insufficiently) Christmas-honoring. Then again, there are probably those who would want to classify such activities (and in fact all activities of conservative Christians) as nothing but propaganda.

But the question, for me, has less to do with the wider political activities of Christians (at least in this limited case) and more to do with applying this typology specifically to Bibles.

That is to say, what is the best desciptor, in this typology, for the Bibles we are examining here? Are the elements encoded into published Bibles matters of unwitting bias, or of ideology?

I am inclined to think that the demarcation between these two possibilities is not so strict. Instead, perhaps, we see both unwitting bias and ideology at work in the material structure of published Scripture. As more Bibles are explored on this blog, this is a good hypothesis to test.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

ESV BattleZone (weathered metal cover)

Crossway Bible Publishers, $29.99

If you look this particular Bible version up on, they provide the following description:

"Edgy metal-covered ESV Bible is slim, sleek and stylish, with concordance, in-text notes, subject headings and additional Bible resources. 3.75" x 5.75" silvertone matte finish metal with red cross ESV insignia, snap closure."

What they don't talk about is the quality of the product itself, which is quite poor. I ran across this particular Bible version in my local Big Box Bookstore, and it was out of its protective shrink wrapping and thus had probably been handled by many hands before mine (one of the many reasons I go nowhere without my little bottle of hand sanitizer).

The sticker affixed to the back of the armor plated cover reads, "In these pages are the very words of God. Guard them, and they will protect you." And "guard" is an apt word choice here. Despite its ultra-compact size, this Bible weighs in at close a pound, and gives one the impression that it could easily stop a small-caliber bullet if put to the test. Whatever else might be said of the ESV BattleZone, it has gravitas.

The same, sadly, cannot be said for the inside of this version. I was shocked, to say the least, upon opening the book, to find the binding in complete disarray. I am not sure if it had come unglued, or had never been properly glued in the first place, but it appeared simply awful. I took some pictures to show what I mean.

As you will also notice, the typeface is incredibly small - 6.2 point font, to be exact. Given the cover, I imagine the audience intended for this Bible would be young boys, but I have trouble imagining the young boy who would struggle with reading a typeface this tiny for long (they may exist - I always hope I am wrong in such assumptions).

The text itself is the ESV, or "English Standard Version," which is a descendant of the Revised Standard Version. The ESV first appeared in 2001, and purports to be "Essentially Literal." In other words, this version delivers the "precise wording of the original text in the personal style of each Bible writer," according to the introduction.

When I looked this Bible up on Amazon, and looked at the customer comments, I was surprised to find that there was a lot of debate about the merits of the ESV as a translation, but very few comments about the actual physical version of this Bible itself. In fact, I discovered that Amazon mixes and matches comments with regard to Bibles, such that you will be getting comments about other physical versions of the ESV (Say, the CrossWay Study Bible) along with this particular version (the BattleZone) which you might be ordering.

I did come across one comment that seemed to speak to what I was looking for, from a customer referring to herself simply as A Customer:

I am disappointed with the poor production values of this Bible from Crossway--at least in the hardcover I purchased. From the logo, to the cover, to the layout and general typography, this is an ugly Bible. The quality of the materials and processes (binding) is also disappointing. Given the quality of this translation, I'm frankly surprised that more care and attention was not afforded this Bible by Crossway. I'm contrasting this edition in terms of production quality and beauty with the first edition NIV I have from 1978, and also my current NASB in the hardcover side-column reference edition. These Bibles far surpass this Bible in production quality and beauty (Smyth-sewn binding, lovely, readable typefaces, nice layouts, etc.). This translation deserves a beautiful format.

It is obvious that the particular object I picked up (this particular BattleZone ESV) had seen some rough handling by other store customers. But this gave me pause; isn't rough handling the point? If the demographic audience is young boys, is it not a given that the opening, closing, page turning, and reading will be rough? (snips and snail, after all). Moreover, the entire design of this Bible version - its appeal and very raison d'etre - is in its rugged durability. Resources (not just paper to print and gas to transport, but steel) have been used to create this object, to communicate a certain message with it. This object was designed not just to communicate "God's Word," but the very security of God's Word ("...they will protect you").

It seems curious that this particular Bible seems unable even to make it out of the store with this message intact. That's clear to me, and I'm not nearly as smart as your average 11 year old boy (just ask them). If I think this Bible isn't delivering the goods, what in Heaven's name will they think?

My conclusion? This particular version of the Bible is built to withstand the tests of time and the elements, just so long as you never actually open it.

NPR story on The BOOK: New Testament and The Green Bible

Last week National Public Radio aired a story about two recent, high-profile versions of Christian Scripture: The BOOK: New Testament [NLT] and The Green Bible [NRSV].

You can access the NPR story in its entirety here.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Exhibit of English Bibles on display at Vanderbilt Divinity Library

If you are in the Nashville area, stop by the Vanderbilt Divinity Library and take a look at their display of various English Bibles in the atrium rotunda.

The Bibles, from the Fleming Collection in the Library Archives, offers an interesting sampling of these artifacts. The manner in which they are displayed highlights the various cover sheets of the editions (facsimiles are placed alongside the editions themselves, so you can see both the binding and the front matter. A nice touch).

I like especially that you can observe in these frontspieces the beginnings of justificatory authorization. Printed Bibles, produced for mass markets, have always found was to encode such justifications. In these versions, you can find variations of the following statement on the title pages:

Translated according to the Hebrew and Greek, and conferred with the best translations in all languages / With most profitable annotations upon all the hard places, and other things of great importance

In other words, the Bible tells you how best to read it. This point will be expanded upon in future posts.