Reader Jim asks via email why most Bibles have two columns, unlike the single column of most other printed books. The answer has three parts: economics, readability, and history.
The Bible is a large book; most double-column ESVs run somewhere between 1,000 and 1,300 pages. Moving to a single column increases the page count 10% to 25%: less text fits on a page.
Double columns substantially reduce the space required for poetry because many lines of poetry fit on a single, shorter line; a single-column typesetting means a lot of empty space on a page filled with poetry. Poetry comprises about 25% of the Bible, so you can imagine the amount of space saved with two columns.
Fewer pages mean lower printing costs, lower manufacturing costs, and a more affordable Bible.
Most Bibles use ten-point or smaller type to minimize the page count. A single-column typesetting works out to 16-20 words per line, well above the 9-12 words per line recommended for optimal readability. Combine long lines with relatively small type and often-lengthy paragraphs, and you have a typesetting that presents unnecessary obstacles for both silent and public reading.
The Bible, in terms of heft, is comparable to printed reference works such as textbooks and dictionaries. Books that need to convey a lot of information in a limited number of pages will almost always employ two or more columns to use space more efficiently.
Take a look at our Celebrating the Printed Bible post. Both the Gutenberg Bible and the original King James Bible come in two-column typesettings.
The Gutenberg Bible “was expressly designed to look like a manuscript book produced in Northern Europe in the mid-fifteenth century…. Gutenberg’s set of type includes the same ligatures (linked letters) and special scribal abbreviations, designed to save space and speed copying, characteristic of medieval manuscripts” (cite).
In short, printed Bibles continued the ancient scribal tradition of using narrow columns and compact letterforms. Bible publishers maintain this tradition by typesetting Bibles in two columns. In turn, many Bible readers have come to expect Bibles in two-column, fully justified typesettings.
Given the above reasons, will there ever be a single-column edition of the ESV? Yes, there will definitely be one, and maybe sooner than you think. That’s all we can say for now. We might have less vague news for you in six months or so.