Is Leather Really That Important?

Last month I mentioned how I was in the market for a really good high quality leather Bible.  In particular I’ve had my eye on these two:

I don’t own a hard copy of the NRSV (although I do own a hard copy of the NRSV Apocrypha) so I thought that would be a good choice.  But I’m a KJV fanatic (since it’s the Bible I ‘grew up’ on) and I’d really love something single-columned, plus I have David Norton’s book A Textual History of the King James Bible that is basically a companion to this New Cambridge Paragraph KJV.

But various comments from Theophrastus and Kevin Edgecomb have me reconsidering the the leather NRSV and really the whole leather thing altogether.  For one, I just received a leather Personal Size ESV Reference Bible from Crossway and I like it a lot but the leather hasn’t wowed me like I thought it would.  Secondly, these leathers Bibles are really expensive.  Thirdly, one of my main reasons for wanting a high quality leather Bible was that they have sewn binding.  Theophrastus has assured me that good quality hardcovers do as well (the hardcover HCSB Study Bible I just got has sewn binding and it’s done very well).

So here’s what I’m thinking—for a third of the price I can get the New Cambridge Paragraph Bible with Apocrypha in hardcover.  I’m assuming that it will have sewn binding and lay open flat in my hand (which is a major reason I had my sights set on leather — when I’m teaching or preaching at church it’s helpful to have a Bible that I can walk and talk with).  I don’t imagine it will have a ribbon marker, which bums me out a bit, but at a third of the price I can do without it.  The upshot here is that I can get some other stuff (like a hardcover ESV with Apocrypha) along with it rather than breaking the bank on one leather Bible.

I haven’t made up my mind as of yet but I’m really considering going against the grain (pun intended) and leaving the leather alone for right now.  Comments trying to persuade  or dissuade me are encouraged.

B”H

42 thoughts on “Is Leather Really That Important?

  1. I have one genuine leather bible that I hardly use (because it’s rather large), so I can’t really say one way or another. Personally, I would definitely go the less expensive route just because I could use that money elsewhere.

  2. Nick,

    For a Bible I use a lot, I always go with at least genuine leather, if not the best. And I am too an old KJV man. Though recently I got a black genuine leather NKJV Holman Large Print Ultra Thin…you can even smell the leather! However, the other day at a home moving sale, I bought an old black genuine leather NASB.. The Open Bible, mint condition, still in the box.. for your 5 bucks. This Bible is before your time (78/79). Have you ever seen an old Open Bible? Great biblical cyclopedic index!

  3. It is not just price that is a factor. Leather is actually less durable than hardcover unless the book is used regularly — it will dry out and crack. That’s not a problem with a book one uses daily or regularly: the oils in your hand should keep the leather in good shape. But if you own 100 leather Bibles, you can hardly use all of them regularly.

    The result is that you need to periodically (twice a year) check all your leather Bibles and if they are drying out, oil them. You can buy the 60% neatsfoot oil/40% lanolin mixture developed by the New York Public Library developed for this purpose. See this video for details. As you can see, it is quite an involved process, and quite time consuming.

    The other problem is storage. If you are using a leather hardcover book, that’s not a problem, but if you are using a softcover leather book, it really can’t be stored vertically — you should ideally store it in a specially fitted storage box (such as the original Bible box) horizontally. Leather is also suspect to mold — if you’ve ever sniffed around your great-grandparent’s Bible collection, you’ll know what I mean.

    Now both of these problems can be overcome and it may be worth it if you are buying a single Bible or prayerbook that you are going to use every day — or even once a week. But if you are buying a book that you will use for reference — or that you will read through completely once and then keep and read only rarely — I think leather is much more trouble than it is worth. That’s certainly true for your NRSV, for example — there are lots of great NRSV editions available in hardcover and synthetic bindings.

    If you want the flopability of soft leather and the price and convenience of hardcovers, I recommend buying a book with a synthetic leather cover (this marketed under various names, such as TruTone, NuTone, etc.) And well made hardcovers are surprising durable in real-world “worship” situations. Almost all the Jewish prayerbooks I can recall seeing are in hardcover, and those are used three times a day by the pious.

    (Yet another advantage of hardcovers — if you are reading a book on the table, a well-made sewn-binding hardcover will definitely lie flat.)

    One more thing. Any book can be flawed — it is just that when one pays in the three figures for a book, one feels like an idiot. I jurecently st bought a $170 Cambridge Bible, the new “Cameo” KJV with Apocrypha. Its Apocrypha stops at 2 Maccabees 15:5. Oops. Now I am debating with myself whether to return it or not.

  4. Jason: I’m in pretty much the same boat. I have a huge Dake Bible that’s genuine leather and I never use it. My pocket NKJV is genuine leather and has served me well for over 20 years now. And I’ve been making use of the genuine leather ESV personal size reference Bible since I’ve gotten it but the leather is quite stiff at the moment. I wonder how long it will take to soften up. I honestly thought it was bonded leather when I got it because I can’t tell the difference.

    Fr. Robert: No, I’ve never seen an Open Bible, although I’ve seen plenty of opened Bibles. ;-)

    T. C.: I was under the impression that calfskin, goatskin, etc. was all leather. Is it considered something different?

    Theophrastus: That’s really more work then I’m willing to put into keeping a leather Bible in good condition. When I finally do get the Cambridge Paragraph Bible I plan to use it regularly so I suppose leather is still an option there, but if the binding of a hardcover will hold up just as well I’d rather save the money and get something else with it. Do you happen to know if the hardcover Cambridge Paragraph Bible has sewn binding? I assume it does but I’m not sure.

    And if I were you I’d definitely return that Cameo KJV — for $170 you should get what you paid for!

  5. The Cambridge New Paragraph KJ hasn’t been published yet, so I don’t know for sure whether it will have sewn bindings or not — but I am guessing it will based on previous releases (and the fact that it is a $50 hardcover — which still is not exactly cheap!)

    What I’d do is order from Amazon and check it out. I’m pretty sure you will like it. But if you don’t, you can return it and get something else.

  6. Jason,

    When I first ordered the HCSB SB, I ordered the cowhide, but it was B/O, so I went with the genuine black. Which is very nice, soft for genuine. I might yet give the genuine to my wife, and go with the cowhide now? My wife uses the NLT in a gen. leather however mostly.

  7. Fr. Robert: I may opt for a premium leather bible for preaching someday, but I just can’t imagine dropping $100+ for one. I’ll stick with my bonded leather for now!

  8. I have a TNIV Renaissance Fine leather and it is beautiful. It is supple and very nice to look at. Unfortunately it doesn’t go anywhere with me because it is so nice!

    The Cambridge pitt minion Bibles are the best bibles I have found. I have a NKJV on its way for a family member and I will review before the get it!

    The leather of the ESV is not the same as a cowhide or goatskin. If i were you I’d check out this blog. He has a lot of Bibles reviewed and some very good photos.
    http://www.bibledesignblog.com/

  9. Theophrastus: That’s probably the route I’m going to take. BTW, do you order much from Amazon? It seems like you like to go straight to the source from a lot of your comments.

    Mark: I desperately want that TNIV but since I love the bonded leather reference TNIV so much it’s not a pressing enough desire to make me shell out the $70. The pitt minion Bibles are all double-columned, right? These days I’m more in the market for single-column Bibles—I find that it makes the text flow more naturally when I’m reading.

    I’ve been reading Bertrand’s blog for a while now. Even with all the free books I get I still find myself a bit envious over all the high quality Bibles he gets for free!

  10. Theo,

    In the end, you’re correct. But I was really speaking from experience. Never encountered the Goatskin personally.

    These days I carry around a calfskin Bible. ;-)

  11. the TNIV Bible I got, that Mark mentioned, is the nicest I’ve EVER had and I hope they do another one exactly like it for the 2011 NIV – Mark, you need to use it for it to do well, the oils in your hand keep it supple – the same is for the calfskin Bibles, they are meant to be handled and used.

  12. I do use it Brian, I just don’t take it out.

    Nick, I must admit, i also like the single column layout and would struggle to go back to double column.

  13. TC,

    I have an older Oxford KJV with Grained Goatskin, and Bonded leather lined. It will be around well after I am with the Lord.

    I also have a Renaissance black leather TNIV Bible. I have cracked it maybe only half a dozen times. Maybe I will sell it? lol But seriously I want to see the best leather new NIV11, when its available. I have a large print genuine leather, burgundy NIV SB, it is mint. The quality of that will not come again I don’t think? (Soft genuine leather), dated 1985.

  14. I’m thinking to call a synod to proclaim the infallibility of Theophrastus.

    Everything he said = gold

    My biggest gripe these days is quality of leather. It all seems like an expensive con. Not a single leather Bible that I’ve bought that has been published over the last twenty years compares to the quality of even those I have from the late eighties. The prices simply don’t reflect a corresponding quality. I take solace in the increasingly fine yet opaque paper and improved inks, along with well-done sewn bindings.

    As T memtions, if the Norton KJV is something you’ll use regularly, that’d be an excellent choice. I love that Bible.

    Back when I had only three leather Bibles I would oil them up every few months. I’m shamefully lazy about it these days. There are just too many of them. I sound like such an ingrate, but it’s a real chore. (As is typing this on an iPhone while my backup’s running!)

  15. Kevin: I struggle to think that there is a human being living today that knows more about Bibles than Theophrastus. Seriously.

    I’m thinking that if the binding of the hardcover Cambridge Paragraph KJV is sewn then it will hold up well so I’m going to save the $60 and get that.

  16. That sounds like an excellent choice! I can’t wait for that to come out, really.

    I would also suggest running any “fancy Bible” questions by Mark Bertrand, too, the Bible Design Blog guy. Also, I’ve found publishers to be very accomodating in responding to well-informed questions.

    Theophrastus is a bibliophile entire! And I know him personally (in the real, live 3-D world of flesh and blood and spirit), which is even more a gratefulness-inducing delight!

  17. Kevin: It seems to me that Mark Bertrand gets nothing but the best quality leather Bibles available. I’m struggling to think of the last time I read a really negative remark on his blog. I guess that’s the perk of having R. L. Allen and Cambridge sending you their top of the line stuff. As I said to Mark in a comment above, “Even with all the free books I get I still find myself a bit envious over all the high quality Bibles he gets for free!”

    And what a treat it must be to know Theophrastus in the flesh. I can imagine all the wonderful conversations you two must have! He reminds me of another blogger who no longer blogs (so much so that I suspect they might be one and the same).

  18. I don’t think I’d want all those fancy Bibles all over the place. Some of them look so nice, I’d not want to read them for fear of sullying them. And despite their obvious quality, I’ve yet to see an Allen Bible that appeals to me, oddly enough. I admire them, but they don’t push any buttons for me. I do have several different Cambridge Bibles, though. But I’m kind of over the leather thing, in general. Maybe I’ll get a leather edition of the New Cambridge Paragraph Bible once it’s out. I almost certainly will. But I’d like a hardcover, too. I’m more excited by the text than the cover.

    I’ve just sent myself a reminder to send you the ISBN of a particularly nice NRSV with Apocrypha that I bought myself for my birthday years ago: it’s a New Oxford Annotated NRSV, with two ribbons, thumb-indexing, and a proper black Moroccan leather that puts to shame any that I’ve seen since (except for a miniscule Cambridge NT that I have). I got it about ten years ago, so it’s likely out of print, but it’d be something to look for. The margins are spacious (though it is not a “wide margin” edition), the font is generously sized, and overall it’s a real delight. And since it’s the NOAB 2d edition, it’s not all cluttered up with useless notes. A verse or section will have a pithy little blurbish note giving the absolutely necessary pointers toward meaning, given by people whose careers were long and opinions respected, not the otiose trendinesses in the margins of the third and following volumes.

  19. Oh, and we do have delightful conversations! Not often enough, unfortunately.

    As far as I know, though, he’s always been himself and no one else. But then, I suppose we might all say that of ourselves, as well….

  20. Folks, I’m blushing with all these compliments, but really — I prefer the air of mystery. It is much more fun for people to wonder — am I person? am I collective? am I an artificial intelligence program? am I simply an alter ego of Kevin or some other popular blogger?

    Kevin is absolutely correct that the quality of leather used in bookbinding has precipitously declined in the last few years — of the two great British Bible publishers, Oxford and Cambridge University Presses, Oxford has largely given up on quality leather, and Cambridge has been simply haphazard in its leather binding. American commercial publishers such as Zondervan and Nelson have seen even more dramatic declines.

    Mark Bertrand’s blog is the bees knees in my opinion, although Mark has a definite aesthetic — one that is somewhat different than mine. In particular, I am not really convinced that binding is the critical issue on books (in fact, I would estimate that fewer than 1% of my books actually fall apart) — I think that issues of content, layout, and ease of use are the most important. In this way, I think there is lots of room for innovation.

    I think that the best work in innovative layout and accessibility is going on electronic resources (for Bibles, my two favorites are Logos for the PC and OliveTree for smartphones) and in a number of Jewish Bible publications (which, for a variety of reasons, long privileged the original language texts and a variety of commentaries printed on the page that interact with each other.) One example that is fairly well known is the JPS Torah Commentary series — and it does, in fact, represent real advances in presenting information (and in simply being beautiful) over traditional Bible commentaries (for example, the Anchor Bible Series.)

    I guess the above paragraph is a long way of saying “I don’t want to judge books by their covers. Or their bindings.”

  21. Kevin: I wouldn’t want all of them, just the Cambridge KJVs! I can do without a red leather wide-margin ESV if you know what I mean.

    And please do get me that ISBN! That sounds like something I’d be in the market for. I’ve looked at the 4th edition of the NOAB but all of the reviews say that the paper is way too thin and the layout sucks. And I’m slowly learning that the study notes are of little significance to me (since they say both too much and not enough at the same time) so pithy statements are probably better than long ones.

    Theophrastus: I won’t go on record with who I think you might be but I will say that if you’re anyone’s alter ego then it must be Kevin’s!

    I do like MB’s blog very much (mainly for all the pretty pictures) but I’m not really his target audience since I don’t have the money for all those fancy Bibles. The one I’ve been saving up for would have represented nearly 4 months of Amazon earnings if I were to go with the leather covers. As far as binding goes, I’ve had a few Bibles fall apart on me, and they account for probably 8% of all my Bibles, which is enough for me to care about quality binding. Content and layout are of extreme importance as well (I hate books/Bibles where words run into the inner-margins! or that have smudged nearly illegible type) but it all has to work together (for Bibles at least). I don’t care as much about the academic books that I get because (1) I get most of them for free, and (2) they don’t get nay near the use that my Bibles do.

  22. The ISBN Kevin is thinking of is 0195283716. This regularly available in new or near new condition for a cheaper price that it originally sold for in 1991.

    I do think that in many ways this was the acme (physically and in terms of content) of the NOAB series. It still bore Metzger’s name; certainly the person most responsible for the NRSV, and thus carried a credibility that no later NRSV SB had. Both this version and its twin, the NOAB (Expanded Edition) RSV are definitely reading versions — they are physically a pleasure to read — again unlike any later NRSV (or RSV) SBs.

    Kevin is correct that in later editions many notes tended towards verbosity and sometimes ill-informed (and academically-trendy) positions. (However, I still kinda like the current fourth edition — despite its horrible physical design and its complete compromise towards academic political correctness. What can I say — in the spirit of tokenism, let me set forward the familiar cliche: some of my best friends are liberals.)

  23. As far as binding goes, I’ve had a few Bibles fall apart on me, and they account for probably 8% of all my Bibles, which is enough for me to care about quality binding.

    Unfortunately, Zondervan and Nelson have some of the worst binding (and sloppiest editing) of Bibles I have seen — I’ve seen Bibles that are falling apart in the bookstore published by them. I believe they sell the most Bibles of any publishers in the US. Hendrickson has also released some poorly bound Bibles, but they have gotten much, much better in the last few years. I know some have had poor experiences with B&H, Cokesbury, Crossway, HarperOne, and Tyndale, but I think their Bibles tend to be better bound on average — I’ve not yet had one fail on me. I think that Oxford and Cambridge are much better.

    I’m not a fan of Allan Bibles. They are super-expensive, and the binding often looks ugly to me. (Yap corners are wildly overrated, in my opinion.) Worse, they often use mediocre textblocks. Finally, they are too conservative (never releasing Bibles with Apocrypha) — if you want a traditional non-Apocrypha KJV, I think that Trinitarian Bible Society Bibles are nicer than Allan Bibles — and usually at a fifth or less of the price.

  24. Theophrastus: It’s not a coincidence that Thomas Nelson has been responsible for most of my Bibles that have fallen apart. But they’re also the publisher of the one Bible I’ve had since childhood and it has held up extremely well.

    And I hate yap corners! I refer to them as “uncircumcised Philistines.” I’m not versed in textblocks so I don’t know what’s good and what’s not.

  25. The Trinitarian Bible Society, now there’s a Bible company, but only the KJV. I have several of theirs. I have been there in England. It was here that I really discovered the work and person of EW Bullinger. Who had been its president for many years.

  26. 30 t0 40 years ago Nelson made a good leather Bible, but no more! Since I am the oldest here perhaps, I have seen leather in those days, Oxford and Cambridge Bibles were simply profound in those days. I still have a few. I have a few of the first NASB Cambridge Bibles, and they are sweet genuine leather!

  27. The Metzger connection is key to the value of that second edition: a chief editor in charge of both the translation and the notes, and one of such ability in particular, is a great value.

    Sadly, I have to contradict Theophrastus (alter ego of mine or mysterious other, whichever he or we may be!)! The ISBN of the particular Black Morocco leather thumb-indexed edition I have is 195283163. It’s probably the thumb-indexing that threw the number off. I picked it up 21 March 2000. Unfortunately, there’s no indication inside of when it was actually printed. Even the ISBN is recorded only on a label attached to the box itself (so the infallibility of Theophrastus may yet be intact, as this label may be incorrect!).

    It really is as beautiful as he says. It’s not only my favorite format of the NRSV, but I have found myself to subconsciously compare all other Bibles I’ve gotten since to the beauty of its layout. It’s really that good. It’s two-column, but so well done that it never seems cramped, even with the slightly larger than normal font. And there’s comfortable white space all around. It’s very easy on the eyes.

    Oh, and full yap = full yuck!

  28. Very strange that we have different ISBNs, because my edition also has thumb-indexing (although I don’t care for thumb-indexing at all.)

    I will say that Oxford is all over the map on leather binding. It was good 20 years ago, and in the last year I’ve gotten some good bindings from them, but throughout most of the 2000’s they’ve produced some bad bindings. I would characterize my Oxford NOAB 2nd edition as having pretty good leather — although not quite as good as the best Cambridge Bibles I own.

  29. Theophrastus: I couldn’t find the ISBN that Kevin listed on Amazon or Best Book Deals. I did find the one that you listed. It seems to be what Kevin described though and even if it lacked the thumb indexing that wouldn’t bother me. I know where all the books are anyway.

  30. Nick, you know I own leather bibles, lots of them. I collect them. You can also have a bible rebound in any leather that you want. You could buy a high quality bounded leather and have it rebound in your choice of leather. Cowhide is very durable, and over time can get more flexible. The oil for your hands very important so don’t put a cover on them. I should write a post on leather bibles and upcoming choices.

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