Friday, May 20, 2016

The Trend of Premium Bibles as a minor form of idol worship?

I like to disengage from the topics I would normally write about. One of my favorite distractions involves admiring the range of premium bibles (bibles made of real leather, more opaque, and a sturdier book block). Doing so brings me into contact (online or otherwise) with people who would typically not have on iota of interest in the material on this blog. But it is a good time....and I really like looking at all those photo and video reviews!

Now, I personally haven't committed to purchasing any premium bible. I tend to frequent the ancient languages or read it in Italian. My English editions of choice fall along scholarly lines and are typically not the type of edition to receive "premium" treatment.

In the premium bible circles I occasionally drop in on, there has been recent discussion regarding the morality behind dropping $200 - $300 USD on a leather bound bible....multiple times...per year...developing an impressive portfolio in the process.

Now, I love the online media coverage of the premium bible market - it is fun stuff. This being said, replace "Bible" with "Porche" and one does begin to look at the whole thing with a wary eye. If one knew someone with a number of luxury cars, most people would eventually wonder (at least silently) "buddy, don't you have enough?" Similarly, when one sees certain blogs or youtube channels with multiple "luxury" bible reviews per year, one begins to wonder if this is not turning into an obsession on the pure material good and nothing more.

The whole premium bible market (limited as it is) seems ready to implode - frankly, publishers devising "new premium models" with scant design or formatting differences between them is threatening to glut the market with redundant product. What was something special 3 or so years ago is threatening to become a trend past due.

The contemporary ballyhoo over premium bibles needs some context. Here we go: we're living in the dark ages of book publishing! Since the late 60s/early 70s, book publishing conventions have changed. One need only consult examples of the breviaries produced in the first half of the 20th century for an illustration. American readers may well be familiar with the volumes produced by Benziger Brothers. These were sturdy book blocks, supple leather, and opaque pages (little to no bleed through)  - they were built for heavy use. The same held true for leather bound bibles published during the same period.

What was once convention in book binding (particularly of religious text) has now become rare. The 1970s saw changes in publishing standards brought on by both changes in technology (the rise of bonded leather) and the market (paper as a good requiring increases in costs to source it). Bonded leather replaced real leather - and it was typically no more than slapping a thin layer on paper end-sheets. Otherwise it was vinyl of some sort. Paper was increasingly subject to various requirements that reduced the amount of thread actually in the paper. Smyth sewn binding was displaced in favor of a more economical glue job. Where older materials were still used (such as with the Vatican's leather editions of the Liturgia Horarum), modern assembly techniques often did a poor job securing the book block to the cover, resulting in early detachment and separation from the end-pages.

Anyone who has held a bible published in, say, the 40s, 50s, or 60s wants to know why it is so hard to find one published in a similar way today. Enter "premium bible publishing." The market is trying to meet a demand that even the consumer may not adequately understand. The desire isn't so much for a "premium bible," but that bible publishing would return to an earlier standard...which makes sense, really.

A well bound book is going to last. Bibles, breviaries, even the much hyped altar missals that coincided with the new English translation of the Roman Missal are notable for a good aesthetic appearance disguising poor construction specs. To quote a Dominican priest I know who once lamented to me about his leather set of breviaries a year after purchasing them, "what the hell do you have to do to get a good book?" (This was an $800 or $900 investment on his part)

I don't think I'll ever be more than a passive observer of "premium bibles" - some of the price points seem a tad over what they are actually worth. But I fully understand the appeal and why certain people jump at the chance to snatch them up. I mean, really, what the hell do you have to do to get a good book?

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