Saturday, September 10, 2011

Notes from the Margins of an Obsessive-Compulsive Annotator's Bible

Even though I have owned it since I was in graduate school, I only just now--or just yesterday, rather--finally finshed reading through my HarperCollins Study Bible, a project that took just shy of two years. I have it in the one of the limited leatherbound copies of the first edition: it was difficult to find it in leather, but I managed. No self-respecting hidebound, Bible-thumping Fundamentalist will be seen in public with a hardback Bible, and only sandle-wearing, pipe-smoking, long-haired ivory tower liberal academics use paperbacks. So make mine leather.

There is now a revised and updated edition of the HarperCollins Study Bible with even more material, including the concordance the first edition so badly needs, but I have hesitated in getting one because every review I read tells me they packed more into the new edition by shrinking the font to an uncomfortable size and leaving no space in the margins for my own copious annotations, approximately half of which involve me using a red pen to correct the NRSV's "inclusive" language, inclusive language being that which excludes the thought processes, worldview, and manners of speaking of ancient Jews. Inclusive language also changes "brother" to "comrade" in the New Testament, and you have to wonder who in the world thought that was a good idea. The Bible was not written in politically correct twenty-first century English, nor was it written by commies. Get used to it, comrade. If the Authorized King James Version was good enough for St. Paul, it's good enough for me!

Where was I? What I'm saying is, a good study Bible needs margins. Lots of margins. It needs to be one of those large ones with plenty of space in the margins. Otherwise, what's the point? Sure, they've got all their notes in there, but without margins, where are my notes going to go? And don't tell me they can go on the blank "notes" pages in the back. Nobody uses those. Those are just there so none of the important pages get ripped away when the colored maps in the back inevitably fall out. There is nothing more disheartening than watching a collection of colored maps slide to the floor with the last page of Revelation stuck to them.

The HarperCollins is, or so its publishers claim, the preferred Bible of academic classrooms, and that is the main reason I have it in the first place, because once upon a time I was in an academic classroom and all the other academics, each of whom wore sandles, smoked a pipe, and had suspiciously long hair, laughed at my Nelson Study Bible with the NKJV translation. The other main reason is because the HarperCollins is the only study Bible I have ever found that is both scholarly and attractive. In general, I have found that study Bibles can be roughly divided into two groups:

  1. Fundamentalist Evangelical Protestant
  2. Ugly

The Fundamentalists have turned out some of the best-looking study Bibles. Everyone who contemplates putting together a study Bible should begin by looking at the products of Zondervan. Scott Hahn apparently thought so: the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible almost exactly replicates the layout of the NIV Study Bible. Evangelicals tend to be emotionally attached to their personal study Bibles, so they want them to look nice, and so we ex-Evangelicals who convert to Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy like to turn out Evangelical-looking study Bibles with Catholic or Orthodox content.

But most academic or non-Fundamentalist or ecumenical study Bibles are hard to look at and harder to read. If you want an example of a hard-to read academically minded Bible, go to your shelf and pull down the second edition of the Catholic Study Bible. I know you've never opened it before, so do so now and take a look at the layout. Note the miniscule font designed for eyestrain. Note the tiny margins. Note that the study materials are not in the form of annotations to the biblical books, as they should be, but are rather in the form of a seperate commentary in the front, which ought to be placed in another volume. Note that the NAB translation is tin-eared. Note also that the maps are falling out of the back even though you haven't opened the book before.

After I read a study Bible cover to cover, I always want a new one, and that's probably the biggest reason it took me so long to finally get around to the business of reading this one straight through from end to end: I liked it so much--even though I sometimes disliked the opinions expressed in the notes--I didn't want to want a new one. And if I switched to a new study Bible, I would be facing the daunting task of transferring several years' worth of hand-written annotations. I can put off replacing it for a while, of course, but they don't make books to last these days and I know it will fall apart eventually. I can't just have it rebound when that happens because I'll lose all my notes in the inner margins. The dissolution of my current Bible could give me an excuse to switch to the new, updated edition, but everything I've read tells me I won't like it.

One possibility is to locate another copy of the original HarperCollins Study Bible, such as I'm using now, and send it immediately to a book rebindery to be made to last. Apparently, a number of rebinderies specialize in catering to people who, like me, are unreasonably finnicky about Bible packaging. There is a whole blog dedicated to the subject of the binding of the Bible, the Bible Design Blog, which is a cool site that can tell you exactly how you should want your Bible to be spruced up. That blog links, for example, the Mechling Bookbindery, a company whose name means, in Latin, "Baby Mecha," and which offers some nice services to people like me who don't want to get mocked by the Fundamentalists when they show up at the Wednesday night ecumenical prayer meeting with a hardback. (It's really hurtful to listen to comments like, "Hey, nice cardboard, Catholic!") Mechling's "Deluxe Leather Bible Binding Package" includes an all-leather cover with leather liner and three bookmarks. That's, like, one for the Old Testament, one for the New Testament, and one for the Apocrypha (my ecumenical study Bible has an Apocrypha). Now that's what I'm talking about. The price tag sure makes me pause, though.

Ooh, I wonder if I could get both a first edition and a revised edition, and take the concordance out of the revised edition and tell the rebindery to bind it with the first edition . . . and then I'll maybe take the beautiful Oxford full-color maps that recently fell out of the back of my Catholic Study Bible and tell them to throw those in there, too . . .

No. I go too far.

On second thought, perhaps when I buy a new Bible I will get a Pitt Minion simply because I, being me, think "Pitt Minion Bible" sounds hilarious.

Of course, no matter what I buy, I am stuck with the trial of transferring my notes. Here's an example of the task I'm faced with--just multiply this by a few thousand pages (well, okay, not quite):

Four colors, like a comic book!

An acquaintance of mine from years ago, when faced with this dilemma, got a book out of it, and I'm pleased to see it can still be found: it's called Notes from the Margins of an Old Preacher's Bible, and he originally produced it for his own use so he could copy all its contents into each new Bible he got. I knew this good gentleman back when I really was a Fundamentalist and didn't just pretend to be one in order to ramble on the Internet. His book's contents are entirely of an Evangelical, Fundamentalist, and Dispensationalist flavor, but it is not without its gems of wisdom. I suppose I could try publishing a book like that, but most of the annotations I've written into my margins are copied out of other books, so it would probably violate a copyright or something.

I think the reason so many study Bibles have such tiny fonts and such narrow margins is because they are made for sandle-wearing, pipe-smoking academics who don't want to be seen in public with a huge Bible in tow. Publishers like HarperCollins don't understand that those of us who really love Bibles want them huge. Really huge. A Bible should be big enough to resonate when I thump it. HarperCollins should release a new, bigger version of the revised edition of the HarperCollins Study Bible, only with the margins and white space of the original. Also, it needs a cross-referencing system in the worst way. Maybe even a Pitt Minion cross-referencing system. I'd buy that in an instant . . . but only if it's in leather.


And make sure those pages are art-gilt, buddy.
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