Cambridge is the oldest and one of the most prestigious Bible publishers on the planet. On top of this, their text blocks are custom designed and hence different from what all other publishers are doing, even with the same translations. These facts have led me to the (tentative) conclusion that Cambridge is my favorite Bible publisher of all those I’ve covered on this blog. So it’s my pleasure to now review my favorite typesetting from Cambridge: the Clarion Reference Bible.
I won’t dance around things: this is one of the finest text blocks known to man. Ever since I first beheld the Clarion, I have hailed it as one of the best all-around Bibles available. There is no other single column reference Bible that can match it, and I hope you’ll see why.
The #1 reason I still love the Clarion, even with the release of Crossway’s Heirloom Legacy, is its column width of 3.5″ combined with the Lexicon 8.75 font. Why do these two combine to form a perfect column? Bible Design Blog’s J. Mark Bertrand shares a helpful tidbit: “When speaking with Cambridge’s Chris Wright about the line width of the Clarion, by the way, he shared a handy measure: an effective column width runs about 60-65 characters or so.” Similarly, M. Bassford has also provided an insightful analysis, concluding that the Legacy does not “work” for him “as a reader.” His reasoning is worth quoting at length:
Bringhurst notes that the ideal length for a line is between 40 and 66 characters. He further prescribes that a book with fewer than 500 words per page should be laid out in single-column form, but a book with between 500 and 1000 words should have two columns.
The Legacy, by contrast, has about 73 characters per line. Page 1278, which looks like a typical page of prose, has 609 words of text. Both of those figures lie outside the Bringhurstian optimum. If the same section of text were laid out at 60 characters per line, the resulting page would contain almost exactly 500 words. We cannot know unless we were to ask him ourselves, but I suspect that Bringhurst would say of the Legacy that it attempts to carry too much meaning in each line.
That matches my own subjective experience of reading the Legacy. The lines are too long for me to get through easily. I take in the first 55 characters of a line with a single glance, but then I must spend a second glance on the remaining 18. Taking in so little information throws me off my reading rhythm and takes me out of the text.
No single column ESV I’m aware of hits this sweet spot, other than the Clarion of course! I wouldn’t take it as far as Bassford; the Legacy works marvelously as a reader as far as I’m concerned (even with its 4″ columns and 70-ish characters-per-line). But I do agree that the characters-per-line count is more ideal in the Clarion than in the Legacy, and this gives the Clarion an objective “edge” over the Legacy for some of us detail-oriented, nitpicky people!
As for the format, this is a single column reference Bible. The cross references are placed in the outer margin, as opposed to Crossway’s several single column reference editions that place the references in the gutter. I think the Clarion’s placement looks nicer. Aside from that, one benefit is that you can hold more of the page edges while you read without covering up text. One downside is that the text of the Bible curves further toward the gutter–maybe too close for some people’s comfort. I’ve even heard some go so far as to use the word “claustrophobic” in conjunction with the Clarion inner margins! I for one prefer more margin space on the inside, but it doesn’t bother me enough to remove the Clarion from its high status as one of my all time favorites.
This hand size Bible “reads big”. It may even read bigger than the larger ESV Legacy. The 8.75 Lexicon font is plenty big, but there is some sort of optical illusion on the Clarion’s page spread because it looks bigger. When I place it next to the Legacy, which has slightly larger font and leading, the Clarion font looks bigger and the leading looks more generous! But when you get the pages on top of one another, overlaying the words, you see that this is not the case (thanks to ghosting, this is possible!). That’s what I mean by “optical illusion.” I have probably spent too much time trying to figure out the cause of this illusion (which is a good illusion to have, by the way). In the end, I think it is simply due to the shorter and narrower columns on the Clarion. Since the page spread is smaller, as are the columns, the text jumps out more. In this sense, the Clarion is more readable than the Legacy, or any other single column Bible I’ve seen. Some may think the presence of cross references makes it less readable, some may find the lack of references in the Legacy inconvenient. Both are sort of true depending on your vantage; but considering the whole Clarion package, smaller columns and all, I think it is very difficult to decide which is more readable. I thought the Heirloom Legacy would dethrone my Clarion, but it hasn’t…each has a portion of its rump on the throne for now, trying to edge the other off!
Some people have lamented the 27 GSM paper used in the Clarion. I’ll admit–it is thin. But the line matching helps mitigate show thru pretty well, and all the benefits of this edition outweigh the thin paper, in my view. Moreover, without the thin paper, you wouldn’t have the same text block- it would need to be bigger in some direction, and it is actually the perfect size as is. I do like thicker paper when possible, though, so this is a relative weakness in the Clarion. [And two further notes on the ESV edition of the Clarion: (1) The thin pages suffer from a “corner curling” phenomenon that has been well documented by Bible nerds. This is not a major issue as far as I’m concerned, but its worth noting. (2) Also, for some reason the line matching in the ESV edition is off in certain places. Again, not a deal breaker for me, but something to be aware of.]
As for size, there is slight variation depending on the translation you choose, but they’re roughly 7.125″ x 5.125″ x 1.5″, a short and stout, hand sized Bible like no other! And as for the covers and bindings, this is where the three editions under review diverge. I’ll take a paragraph for each option.
The black goatskin is deeply grained, thick, and supple. The cover folds over a polyurethane liner and is attached around the liner not only with glue, but also with complete perimeter stitching- beautiful and strong. Some have bemoaned the poly liner, wishing it were leather. While I also prefer the look and feel of leather, this liner is no lightweight. It does the job, allows a great deal of flexibility, and might even last longer than leather. This is also the only of the three binding options that is edge-lined, which is generally understood to be a longer lasting binding style. The hinges keep this one from being as floppy as an Allan, but it opens flat in Genesis or Revelation nonetheless. The black goatskin edition also features art gilt, which is the application of red-dye under the traditional gold foil on the page edges. This is a feature that we’ve seen in many high-end Bibles, and it holds both aesthetic and pragmatic value; it makes the page edges look classy and wear better. Finally, the black goatskin includes two red ribbons.
The brown calfskin is a smoother leather with a very subtle, fine grain (almost unnoticeable). The first difference, which it shares with the calfsplit, is that it has “Holy Bible” embossed in gold on the cover. It isn’t large or obtrusive imprinting, and I think it is a nice touch. I would love to have seen it on the black goatskin, but many people prefer a blank cover. This binding, as with the calf split, is paste-down rather than edge-lined. It makes for a stiffer cover, but I don’t mind that at all…sometimes more support is warranted. And this binding is just as limp as the goatskin, or even more so. It also opens completely flat, beginning or end. The calfskin also features art gilt and two ribbons, though these ribbons are brown.
The black calf split is the most “budget friendly” option, and the leather on this one has a very nice, pronounced pebble-grain. This is also the stiffest of the three, but will open flat no problem with a bit of use (and some will no doubt prefer the added support). As with the brown calfskin, it features a paste-down binding. It also has “Holy Bible” on the cover. Another thing to note about the calf-split is that it does not feature art-gilt page edges but rather the plain gold foil gilding. Some may prefer it this way, and some may simply not care enough to fork over the extra money required for the goatskin or calfskin. Either way, this is a fine alternative.
If you’re at all like me, you may ask yourself, “What in the world is “calf-split leather?!” I asked Mr. Groser of Cambridge University Press, and I’ll quote his entire answer, which is enlightening if you’re interested (repeated from my Wide Margin review):
The original calf hide has been split into two pieces at the tannery with the top side going for other purposes (car upholstery, posh shoe liners etc.) while the bottom side, which crucially contains the strongest fibre structure is reserved for bookbinding which requires tough and resilient material due to the wear and tear that books undergo. During the tanning process a realistic, though artificial grain, is embossed on the top of the hide but all other treatments are the same as for a full calfskin or goat. The fact that the tannery is obtaining effectively two hides from one makes the material somewhat cheaper than the full grain calf or goat, though due to the other treatments and processes, but not 50% cheaper! As the cover material, as well as the cover making constitutes a not insignificant proportion of the cost of the binding of the Bible it offers a slightly more economic, though still attractive option. Incidentally, almost all Bible covers, especially in the US, that are termed ‘Genuine leather’ are ‘split’ pigskins which have a more synthetic appearance and feel. We use the term Calf-split leather, which is a traditional term firstly to be clear as to what the material is – a split calfskin – and secondly to differentiate from other ‘genuine leathers’ although it is a subset of that wider definition; but we believe calf to be more refined than pig.
I love it–very Kosher / Halal! I think Jews and Muslims would agree with Bob in his last comment 🙂 !
I said it about the Wide Margin and I’ll repeat it with the Clarion: So far, there are few Bibles that, after much handling and reading, still make me genuinely excited. The Cambridge Clarion makes this list. In sum, this is one of the most innovative and readable typesettings I’ve ever seen, all packaged in a miraculously small edition. It is one of my favorite Bibles, and one that I reach for over and over again.
And in case you’re not aware of the advantages of a single column Bible, let me briefly sum it up in this conclusion: The Bible is, at its core, a story. Most written stories we encounter are formatted into one column, while dictionaries and other reference books are often arranged into two columns. For this reason, I believe that the format of a book subtly affects the way we approach it. Is the Bible a reference book for looking things up, like an encyclopedia, or is it rather a story, with flow, movement, and context? I hope the answer is obvious to you (#2)! The Clarion showcases this reality well and helps us to get sucked into the narrative flow of Scripture.
The Clarion’s cover materials and details are fantastic, and this Bible would make a fine lifelong companion for the reader of God’s Word. I love the black goatskin edition. If you can have an edge-lined binding, then you should. But I have to admit, the brown calfskin is also incredibly attractive. If you don’t care about having art gilding on the page edges, I’d suggest getting the calf split because of the cheaper price and the attractive grain on the leather. The inside is identical to the other options.
All three binding options are available in the KJV, NKJV, NASB, and ESV. I would recommend purchasing from EvangelicalBible.com (here), though you can find them at many retailers (including amazon, CBD, wtsbooks, etc).
And lest we get lost in leather-bound English-Bible luxury, please remember to pray for translations in the remaining 1,859 Bible-less languages in our world. Click here to see my heart on the matter and to even support the work of Bible translation.