Are Bible Apps Destined to Purify the Printed Word?

The fulfillment of the hypertext dream has cleared the way for printed Bibles to pursue other ends, like being read.
Appears in Summer 2016 Issue: Our Built World: Some Assembly Required
May 26th, 2016

I

Bookshelves will survive in the homes of serious digital-age readers, but their contents will be much more judiciously curated. The next generation of paper books will likely rival the art hanging beside them on the walls for beauty, expense, and "aura"—for better or for worse.

— Michael Agresta, "What Will Become of the Paper Book?"

All our hand-wringing over whether the digital book is destined to supplant its printed rival obscures a more interesting question, which is how digital books are destined to change printed ones. And in the case of one printed book in particular—the original one, the Bible—the question is even more interesting: Could the digital editions be destined to free the printed Scriptures to discover a new raison d'être?

Inventing the Good Book

The Bible as we think of it was shaped by two technologies introduced roughly a millennia apart. The first was the codex, a stack of pages bound at the spine with a protective cover, what we now refer to simply as a book. Prior to the fourth century AD, the papyrus scroll reigned supreme—reading the Bible would have meant reading a series of scrolls—but the rise of Christendom coincided with the rise of the codex. The Scriptures became the Good Book. Perhaps it is a stretch, but the codex seems well-suited to the emerging recognition of canonicity. Its covers include whatever is within them, and exclude whatever is not. Whether the book appealed to early adopters on this basis is debatable. The fact that it does now is not, as publishers agonizing over whether to include the Apocrypha can attest.

Even in a centre of learning like Byzantine Egypt, however, the Good Book was more an ideal than an everyday reality. In their letters, monastic scribes of the period rarely refer to entire copies of the Old and New Testaments; instead, as Chrysi Kotsifou notes in her book The Early Christian Book, "people asked to borrow, or commissioned for copying, specific books of the Bible. Personal preference for one gospel over another could have influenced this practice as much as did the considerable cost of acquiring a book in late antiquity." The expense of making books ensured that even after a thousand years of scribal activity, they remained relatively rare.

It took the printing press to change that. Gutenberg's Bible and the many that followed made the Good Book ubiquitous. If the codex emerged alongside Christianity, the printing press ushered in the age of Reformation. Literacy exploded, vernacular translations of Scripture abounded, and with them the idea emerged that the Bible was a book you could—and should—hold in your hand. After five centuries, however, we seem to have reached the twilight of print, raising the question of what the Bible will become next.

From its inception, the print Bible aspired toward what we would now recognize as hypertext.

Before answering, we should consider what the Bible in the age of print was. In the age of print the Bible would be divided into numbered verses, indexed, cross-referenced, glossed, and annotated. The Protestant ideal held that Scripture was self-interpreting, and to help it along in that regard, a host of study helps and apparatuses were born, encouraging the reader to make parallel connections, to grasp in the literature of generations the grand unity of a single divine author. Most of these features existed before the printing press. Successive print editions simply refined and expanded the apparatuses to the point that the text was rarely experienced without them, rendering the Bible perhaps the most technologically advanced book in the predigital world. From its inception, the print Bible aspired toward what we would now recognize as hypertext.

Is it any wonder, then, how quickly the church embraced Bible software and mobile apps? We have simply traded one kind of hypertext for a better one. Far from killing the print edition, the digital Bible has brought about its apotheosis: it has set the printed Bible free to discover a new telos.

A Death Greatly Exaggerated

The survival of printed Bibles depends on the survival of print itself. If the slump in e-book sales is to be believed, the impending death of the printed book, feared by some and eagerly anticipated by others, has been averted for the moment. Not long ago, it seemed inevitable. In those dark days what passed for optimism was not the foolhardy belief that books as we know them might survive, but the hope that their inevitable doom might turn out to be a good thing. The e-book would set its torch to shelves of cheap mass-market paperbacks, consuming their glued bindings and their coarse yellow-brown pages. All that would remain were the printed books that deserved to be printed. Elegantly designed, printed on good paper, and bound attractively, these objets d'art would be valued by readers the way an audiophile treasures vinyl. The printed book would not be destroyed so much as purified.

Far from killing the print edition, the digital Bible has brought about its apotheosis.

I subscribe to this hope, with one proviso: that the value of the printed book depends on the superiority of its function, not just its form. No, you can't carry a thousand of them in your pocket, but in every other respect the book still outperforms the e-book. As the guru of good typography Robert Bringhurst points out in his book What Is Reading For? the e-book is still tethered to the grid, still saddled with a much lower resolution display, and still lacks the typographical refinement of its printed counterpart. "It would be a fine idea," he writes, "if the digital book functioned a lot like earlier books. But how it works matters less than how we treat it. If, to us, it is nothing but a commodity, that will mean we have forgotten how to read, and no book then will help us." If printed books are to survive on the highly curated shrinking shelves of tomorrow, it will be because the questions posed by e-books helped them rediscover their purpose. If they cannot survive by being cheap, then they will have to survive by being good.

If this is true of printed books in general, it is especially the case for printed Bibles. Pastors and scholars rely heavily on software like BibleWorks and Accordance, and laypeople in church are more likely to open Bible apps on their phones than to carry printed editions. The days are coming and may already be upon us when parishioners look askance at sermons not preached from an iPad. ("But aren't you missional?")

And yet, the printed Bible is not under threat. If anything the advent of e-books has ushered in a renaissance of sorts for the physical form of the Good Book. The fulfillment of the hypertext dream by digital Bibles has cleared the way for printed Bibles to pursue other ends. The most exciting reinvention of the printed Scriptures is the so-called reader's Bible, a print edition designed from the ground up not as a reference work but as a book for deep, immersive reading.

Over the centuries a format for such books has emerged, familiar to us all thanks to its near-universal adoption in fiction and nonfiction. Whether you're reading a novel or a work of history, a short story collection or an anthology of theological essays, the book is designed with a single column of text on each page set with a balanced preparation between the column's width and the size of the type. Bibles usually don't look this way. They are designed like dictionaries, or shrunken newspapers, the kind of text you're more likely to dip into than to lose yourself in. A designer who wants to make the Bible reader-friendly simply has to take her cues from the kind of books we read deeply.

Setting the Bible in a single column per page instead of two, removing all the headings and subheadings that have been inserted over time, along with the cross-references, the red letters, the superscript numbers and letters throughout the text, and even the verse numbers, results in a book that's really good for nothing but reading.

Without a bunch of Bible apps on your phone—I have five at the moment—such sacrifices might be difficult to make. All the features in the classic reference Bible make it a wonderful jack-of-all-trades edition. You can read it, study from it, flip back and forth to parallel passages, consult interpretative notes, beautiful maps, or the never-quite-thorough-enough concordance (with listings for every word but the one you're looking for). It is not ideal for any of these tasks, but it offers just enough to make them all possible. Before the Bible app, print editions like this made a lot of sense, which explains why reader's Bibles, which were attempted every decade or so throughout the twentieth century, never caught on. Without the electronic Bible—in particular, the Bible as go-anywhere mobile app—a specialized print edition optimized for deep reading would have seemed like folly. Now it's the future.

II

In a world of intrusive technology, we must engage in a kind of struggle if we wish to sustain moments of solitude. E-reading opens the door to distraction. It invites connectivity and clicking and purchasing. The closed network of a printed book, on the other hand, seems to offer greater serenity. It harks back to a pre-jacked-in age. Cloth, paper, ink: For these read helmet, cuirass, shield. They afford a degree of protection and make possible a less intermediated, less fractured experience. They guard our aloneness.

—Mohsin Hamid, "How Do E-Books Change the Reading Experience?"

If you have a sophisticated hypertext Scripture app on your phone, always accessible and taking up no physical space, the idea of a printed Bible that offers no features but readability might seem more reasonable than it once did. The question is, why would you want one? After all, the same app that gives you access to a world of parallel information can, at the flip of a toggle, enter reading mode, filtering the options out of sight. Isn't that enough?

Fear Leads to Anger, Anger Leads to Print

To understand the appeal of the printed reader's Bible in an age of digital apps, we have to get in touch with our fears. Nothing is gained without a loss of some kind. If the hypertext reference Bible of old threatened the reading experience, the fear is that the new and improved hypertext app will snuff it out entirely. This anxiety helps explain the appeal of a reader's Bible, just as it helps illuminate seemingly unrelated technological trends. Consider, for example, the curious rise of the minimalist word-processing app.

Pearl divers of old held their breath underwater until they came up with a pearl; we are afraid we can't stay under long enough anymore.

I remember the word processor on my Mac Classic so fondly because, in 1991, I could suddenly type words on the screen and see them appear as they would on the printed page. A few years before the desktop publishing revolution, I had learned to set type on a Mergenthaler Linotype machine, not the old hot lead number, but a fifty-thousand-dollar computer with its own arcane markup language. With a few keystrokes I could send my file from the tiny CRT where coding was done over to a special display where my final design shimmered in sickly green on background of black. This had been state of the art on the eve of the desktop publishing revolution, and now it was a relic fit for mothballs. To me, the Linotype was technology, and the Mac was just magic.

During the past twenty-five years, word processors have only improved. Like the Bible apps on your phone, they even feature writing modes where all the extra toggles and switches are hidden. And yet, the most exciting word-processing niche today is the growing market for minimalist word processors. Apps like Ulysses and OmniWriter stripped away all the bells and whistles to create a distraction-free writing experience. Instead of hiding the myriad of formatting options, they take them away completely: Don't worry about fonts or margins. Don't think of the printed page. Just write. Then along came The Most Dangerous Writing App (yes, that's really its name), the one that starts deleting your words if you stop typing. A recent article in Wired describes it thus:

The Most Dangerous Writing App doesn't care what technique you use, provided you keep typing. If you stop, even for a second, the edges of the screen become tinged with red. The longer you go without typing, the redder the edges become, until, after five seconds of inactivity, your progress is unceremoniously erased. Forever.

If something like The Most Dangerous Writing App had existed on the Mac Classic, I would have shaken my head in confusion. Yet the release of the app filled my social media feed with friends—many of them writers—expressing glee at the thought of a word processor that beats the drum and expects you to keep pulling your oar.

Breadth Kills Depth

The same anxiety that makes these word processors appealing leads some of us not only to think reader's Bibles are a good idea but also to desperately want one. We long for a deeply immersive experience, something so thick and involved that we can't be easily pulled away. The fear is that all the choices and features and options we've given ourselves, though they seemed good at the time, have now become barriers, fatally distracting us from the one thing that matters most. We fiddle with fonts and margins, we zip back and forth through cross-references, always hovering on a busy surface, clicking and tapping, in danger of forgetting there is anything underneath. Pearl divers of old held their breath underwater until they came up with a pearl; we are afraid we can't stay under long enough anymore.

Breadth of features kills the depth of experience. By trying to do everything, we neglect what really matters. In the case of word processors, that's writing. In the case of Bibles, it's to take and read.

The Bible as a commodity is in great shape, never better. But as a book we're not so sure. In Bringhurst's words, we've forgotten how to read. This is the fear that's haunted the church for as long as I can remember. We own Bibles. We consult them. Occasionally we memorize passages from them too. Yet we do not seem to know the Bible the way we once did. If the culture is post-Christian, the church has become postliterate—or at least that's the fear. So our translators make the text simpler, more accessible, in the hope we will read it again, and our designers format the book to minimize the distractions.

The technology that appears to threaten the very existence of books is what makes reader's Bibles possible.

The technology that appears to threaten the very existence of books is what makes books like these a possibility. With readily accessible design software, anyone with a computer can create a text setting of the Bible. Short-run digital presses mean that even without a publisher's backing, these editions can find their way into print. For publishers, the news is even better. A translation with XML markup can be quickly flowed into new layouts, reducing the considerable time and money required to design a new Bible format. This makes it possible not only to release niche products like a reader's Bible but also to improve them. Before digital design and printing, a single-column text setting was an all-or-nothing gamble. Get the first attempt wrong and the project is doomed for at least a decade. Not anymore. In the past decade, more single-column Bibles have been published than have existed at one time in the entire history of the printed Bible. And this has all taken place during what is supposed to be the twilight of printed books.

You'd be forgiven for thinking it feels more like a beginning than an end.

 

J. Mark Bertrand is the author of three novels—Back on Murder, Pattern of Wounds, and Nothing to Hide—Bertrand has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston. His non-fiction book Rethinking Worldview is used in several university and seminary courses, and his work has appeared in print or online at ByFaith, Comment, Books & Culture, and First Things. He writes about the design and production of Bibles at the popular blog BibleDesignBlog.com.

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