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The Physical Beauty of the Bible

A review of Adam Lewis Greene’s Bibliotheca Bible

Published on:
April 11, 2017
Read time:
8 min.
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The first thing I do when I buy a book is smell it. So, naturally, the first thing I do when I finally get my Bibliotheca Bible in the mail—after two long years—is open up the ashen black Torah and stick my nose inside the book like it’s a refined glass of wine.

For those of you who don’t know what the Bibliotheca Bible actually is, it is a completely simplified Bible—a reader’s Bible, as they call it. Verses, chapters, headings, red letters, multiple columns, cross-reference are all axed. The best way to describe it is that it’s very novel-like, as if you’re just opening up a good story and reading.

The Experience

It smells like the California Redwoods—or rather, since I’ve never been to the California Redwoods, it smells like how I imagine the California Redwoods would smell if I ever visited them.

And yet, along with the fresh scent of the wild creeping within the silky pages, it also smells like the lumberjack who cut down the trees was a smoker because I smell a faint trace of—I still can’t quite tell—either cigarette smoke or chainsaw smoke. Either way, some books have a plasticy smell to them, others smell like mildew or rich mahogany, but Bibliotheca not only claims to be a beautiful Bible, it smells like it.

Texture of the front cover

The next thing I do is run my hands over the woven, cloth-bound cover. I wish I knew enough to know whether this was cotton or wool, but I don’t. I’d like to guess it’s wool. And this is probably attributed to the fact that I have a picture in my mind of Adam Greene—the creator of this magnificent Bible—sitting on a rock, cutting the wool off a sheep with rustic, old-school shears and weaving that wool into each individual Bible he created. 

It just feels so purposeful. And when I move it around in my hand I feel as if I am petting a sheep—a very clean sheep, that is.

Next, I take the sandy-white New Testament in my hands and glance over the slight imperfections within the cover itself—which really just makes it all the more perfect. Little black and brown specs tell me that this is completely unique. It is mine. Personal. Like a fingerprint.

The Intro Video

I open the front cover. A small slip of black paper falls out and dances its way to the floor. 

As I pick it up and turn it around I find that the words printed on it are gold. The first printing of the first edition. It’s the kind of note that, for some reason, makes me glad for the future generations of my family. It feels like it makes the book so much more valuable, and one day one of my grandchildren will open the book and be shocked to see that it is a first edition of Bibliotheca.

The millions of other people who bought this probably feel the same.

Underneath the note that this is the first printing of the first edition, the initials of Adam Lewis Greene surround what appears to be his patronus. It almost looks like a stag. I can’t be sure, though, because the antlers on it are straight and almost touch the creature’s butt. Perhaps it’s an elk?

I open to the publication page. When my eyes hit the bottom, I smile when I see FIRST EDITION. I love first editions.

As I flip the pages they feel smooth, as if they were injected with lotion. The contrast between the rougher front cover and the smoothness of the pages themselves is soothing to me for some reason. It’s unexpected. Yet enjoyable.

The pages feel immaculate. Like if milk were somehow made into paper. 

But even more than the paper, the typeface is heavenly. People often talk about the form matching the function in certain works of art. What this essentially means is that—as a professor described to me—if you want to create a movie about the humility of Jesus, you are not going to make Jesus buff, with a dapper, Gilderoy Lockhart smile and a lamb on his shoulders. You are probably going to make a film that is in black and white, that doesn’t portray Jesus as an audacious hero.

This seems to go without saying for most artists and creators, but the one thing that struck me when I started to read ALG’s Bibliotheca was how the typeface perfectly complemented the text itself.

Lewis actually created this font custom for this specific project, and out of everything I have commended to him about this Bible, this is his greatest achievement. The font communicates what the Bible itself is.

What I mean by this is that certain letters are piercing, as if they’ve been cut with a butcher’s knife. The lowercase y, t, and e are examples. Other letters are comforting, as if they’ve been smoothed over with a butter knife. The uppercase J and lowercase a and r are examples. And as I read this I thought of how perfect the font matches the actual meaning of scripture. Some scripture pierces. Some scripture comforts.

On top of that, there are also ligatures, which means that when certain letters are next to each other they can join to form a single glyph. It’s a love of mine when a book has that. It screams intentionality, care, and beauty. If you’re reading this on a phone, you can see how top of the f covers the dot of the i in the ligature fi. (Our desktop typeface doesn’t use ligatures.)

The Lesson

While I love the idea of a reader’s Bible—and as you’ve seen above, I love the execution of it even more—Bibliotheca is almost too simplified. My problem came when I wanted to read the Psalms. I unshelved the raincloud-gray ketuvim, creaked it open (even the sounds this Bible makes are magnificent), but lost myself somewhere in the middle of the Psalms. None of them are labeled. If I want to find a specific Psalm, I have to count each individual Psalm till I get to the one that I want to read. Simplification is great, but oversimplification is impractical.

Yet this isn’t even a detracting quality about the Bible. I actually think that practicality is not what the purpose of scripture is about. And even my own discomfort and annoyance that it took me more than a few minutes to find the Psalm I was looking for points to the fact that efficiency can sometimes be the enemy of deliberation and, even more, beauty.

The Finished Product

It continually brings to mind one of my favorite sections in the novel Les Miserables where the Bishop, instead of planting useful vegetables in one part of his garden, plants flowers instead: 

Once Madame Magloire had said to him with a kind of gentle malice, “Monseigneur, you are always so keen to put everything to good use, yet there’s a useless garden bed for you!”
“Madame Magloire,” the bishop replied, “You are mistaken. The beautiful is just as useful as the useful.” After a pause, he added, “Perhaps more so.”

Very few Bibles I pick up today are beautiful. Most have thin paper that feels like dragonfly wings. The words are usually jammed into their columns like prisons. The type is set in small ergonomic fonts that waste little ink. Bibles like this have their place. I mean, it’s still the Bible.

But when I read a Bible like that it’s often encyclopedic. I often finish my quota of three chapters a day, or find exactly what I need in the exact amount of time that I need it so that I don’t have to waste any more of my time fiddling around with other passages and verses that I don’t need at that exact moment. The Bible becomes something that serves me.

The ESV Reader’s Bible

Up next, Brandon reviews the six-volume ESV Reader’s Bible.

Yet with Bibliotheca, not only is it a beautiful Bible, but it is changing my understanding of how and why I read it. I find myself getting lost in the story much more often with Bibliotheca. I never pick it up passively because it’s not a passive Bible.

If I read it, it forces me to chunk out portions of my day to experience the story. And that is the most wonderful thing I have discovered about the Bible again. It is an experience. It’s no longer something I do to fill up my tank every day.

Rather, it has become the painting that I go to view in order to be amazed. It is the story I cannot wait to return to because of my love of the main character. It is the beauty of the words themselves incarnate in the physical presence of the book.

In short, is has reinvigorated my love of scripture. And that is no small deed.

Jonathan Minnema
Jonathan is the managing editor for Fathom Magazine. You can reach him at jon@fathommag.com and @jonminnema.

Cover image by Jonathan Minnema.

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