Zelophehad’s Daughters

Does the design of our scriptures make them more difficult to read?

Posted by Ziff

LDS scriptures can be difficult to read. One reason is that their language is unfamiliar. The argument has often been made that we should quit using the KJV Bible, or at least supplement it with a more recent translation (for example, here’s Steve Evans, here’s Julie M. Smith, here’s DKL, and here’s Grant Hardy on the topic). But I’m thinking of a different reason our scriptures can be hard to read: their design.

I got to thinking about this issue recently after reading Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Carr argues that reading stuff on computers and other electronic devices encourages us to read broadly but shallowly, to jump from one written work to another rather than engage any of them in real depth. He says (based on research on how people read online documents) that one reason we engage such writing less deeply is because we’re distracted by links:

The need to evaluate links and make related navigational choices, while also processing a multiplicity of fleeing sensory stimuli, requires constant mental coordination and decision making, distracting the brain from the work of interpreting text or other information. Whenever we, as readers, come upon a link, we have to pause, for at least a split second, to allow our prefrontal cortex to evaluate whether or not we should click on it. The redirection of our mental resources, from reading words to making judgments, may be imperceptible to us–our brains are quick–but it’s been shown to impede comprehension and retention, particularly when it’s repeated frequently. As the executive functions of the prefontal cortex kick in, our brains become . . . overtaxed. [p. 122].

Our scriptures clearly don’t have links in them (I’m talking here about hard copy scriptures). But they do have other features that might cause the type of constant minor distraction that Carr describes links as having in online text. The two features that I think most obviously work like this are footnotes and verse/chapter divisions.

Footnotes are so common in our scriptures that it’s easy to lose track of just how many there are. To me, they’re more conspicuous in their absence (e.g., in Alma 56, p. 349 has only three footnotes) than in their presence, which is a strong statement about how common they are. At the other end of the spectrum, there are 68 footnotes in 3 Nephi 11, more than one and a half per verse. It’s true that this is probably toward the higher end of footnote density, but it’s also likely that we read more significant chapters with more footnotes more often. On the bright side, as far as distraction is concerned, it’s nice that footnote references are superscripted and italicized, so they’re probably easier to read past than are links in online text.

Verse divisions, and to a lesser extent chapter divisions, though, seem to me to be far more distracting than links. Carr laments that our reading is interrupted because we have to briefly make a decision with each link about whether to follow it or not. Verse divisions don’t even allow for any decision-making: they are deliberately designed to interrupt the flow of our reading. How can I get into the flow of a story or sermon when I’m interrupted every sentence or two by a new line and verse number?

Somewhat tangentially, I wonder if our tendency to argue by proof text, in other words, to yank snippets of scripture out of their context to support our ideas, might not be related to the use of verse divisions. By “our” here I mean Mormons, but this could easily describe lots of other Christians too. As a missionary, I saw many arguments between fellow missionaries and people we contacted that were fought on both sides using proof texts. Needless to say, everyone’s Bibles had verse divisions that facilitated the snippet snatching.

Getting back to my major point, I wonder why chapter and verse divisions were put in our scriptures in the first place. Not knowing, I’ll guess that they were added to the Bible in order to make it easier for people to refer to very specific bits of scripture, and when we Mormons got extra scripture, we carried the practice on for similar reasons. The divisions certainly do succeed in making bits of scripture easy to refer to and find. But I wonder if the cost they impose in terms of lost comprehension is worth the benefit of easy reference.

I suspect it’s possible that we can have our verse divisions and feast on the text too. I know I’ve run across editions of the Bible that are far easier to read than our own, even setting aside the content of the translation. Such editions typically retain verse numbers but make them look like our footnote references, shrinking and superscripting them to make them easier to read past.  As an added bonus, where scripture consists of poetry, they often use line breaks that match the lines in the poetry rather than the verse divisions.

The current editions of our scriptures are now about 30 years old. I’m not sure when a revision is due out next, but when one comes, I’m hoping that, in addition to having updated footnotes and headings, it is also designed to be easier to read. The verse numbers solution that’s already out there seems like one good way to improve readability. As far as footnotes go, I’m less sure, mostly because I haven’t paid attention to how they’ve been handled in other Bible editions. One possibility would be to have the text contain no mark at all indicating the presence of a footnote. The footnotes themselves could then simply list the verse number and the word they were tagged to. This would be in line with how I’ve seen references handled in a number of non-academic non-fiction books. The text has no mention of the reference; endnotes simply tell what page number and sentence they’re referring to.

So what do you think? Do you find verse divisions or footnotes distracting or am I unusual? Are there other design features of our scriptures you find difficult?

22 Responses to “Does the design of our scriptures make them more difficult to read?”

  1. 1.

    In ordinary scholarly works, I *love* footnotes and have as much pleasure in reading them as reading the text. I don’t like endnotes because I can’t break the habit of looking at them as I do at footnotes, and too often I’m frustrated by the trouble of looking back for an endnote and finding it nothing but a source citation.

    I think that’s why scripture footnotes can be an irritant for me — I usually can’t resist looking down to see the footnote, and too often find it nothing but a useless TG reference. So I’ve taken the time to go page by page through the Bible to make a tiny green circle around the superscript and matching footnote when the note is to JST, and a tiny orange circle around the few other (usually alternate translation) notes that I find useful. I’ve trained myself to ignore all other superscriptions.

    I agree with everything you’ve said about breaking the text up into verses. Those are handy reference tools, but they’ve put us into the habit of reading scripture as though it were a collection of one-liners. I first noticed that when I read the facsimile reproduction of the 1830 Book of Mormon and fell in love with reading by page and paragraph instead of by sentence (or sentence fragment). I like the Harper Collins Study Bible for the same reason — it’s all arranged in paragraphs, with verse numbers indicated by pale superscriptions so that they’re there for reference, not for interference.

    I don’t think there’s a prayer of a chance of revising the format of the English scriptures in our lifetime, at least officially. But with electronic texts so easily available, it takes only a few keystrokes to produce your own unofficial version, formatted the way you like, for studying a few chapters at a time. I’ve done that for a couple of years now, prepping for Sunday School teaching.

  2. 2.

    I think this is one of the reasons many Christians – especially Mormons (who generally read the New Testament as reference material to the Book of Mormon) – fail to see the literary beauty of the Gospel Narratives. Consequently we all lump the Gospels together to form a biography of Jesus instead of learning from the unique perspectives of the authors. I’m trying to image how annoying it would be to read some of my other favorite books having the narrative split up similarly into hundreds of verses. It does make it easier for cross-reference though. :)

  3. 3.

    As a stickler for statistics, I think Mosiah 3 on page 152 has the most footnotes of any in the LDS scriptures. And the fewest is on page 599 of the Bible in 2 Chronicles chapter 10. There is only one footnote on that page. :)

    During my mission, I read the scriptures so much that I soon found different ways to keep my mind stimulated. I even wrote out the genealogies of the Old Testament (lots of errors). I was also amused by which verses had the most footnotes (1 Nephi 19:10 which has footnotes going all the way to the letter “L” —coming in a close second is D&C 132:10, which goes out to “K”), and which pages had the most overall footnotes. Mosiah 3 on page 152, I think has the most, and Matthew 7 on page 1198 has the second most.

    I guess for me, the design of our scriptures has not made them more difficult to read. :)

  4. 4.

    oops, the D&C 132 is verse 19, not 10. sorry.

  5. 5.

    You might take a look at my Reader’s Edition of the Book of Mormon. It was published in 2003 by the University of Illinois Press rather than the Church or BYU, so it is not carried in LDS bookstores and many members are still unaware of it.

    I had also suspected that versification and over-abundant footnoting were obstacles to sustained, un-distracted reading, so I reproduced the 1920 edition (only a handful of changes were made in our current 1981 edition) just as you have suggested–with the verse numbers minimized, very sparse footnotes, and the text arranged into paragraphs. I also got rid of the double-columns (another detriment to smooth reading) and added subheadings so that the general context is obvious on every page.

    Basically, I copied that formatting of modern translations of the Bible, and I think that it makes for a very different reading experience of the Book of Mormon. It makes the narratives easier to follow and allows readers to see the extended arguments within doctrinal sermons. The poetic qualities of some passages were also highlighted by putting those verses into poetic stanzas.

    I hope that the Church will someday move toward this sort of formatting for the scriptures (there is good reason why every other book you read is in paragraphs). In the meantime, the New Revised Standard Version is also available in an edition with single-column paragraphs and minimal footnotes.

  6. 6.

    I don’t see the church having a lot of motivation to change format, as the current format correlates to the highest on average understanding of the bible and Christianity. Of course that understanding could be broad but shallow, as you say.

  7. 7.

    which is why i prefer to read a different bible translation and the old book of mormon (the gold mock-1830 one) for my own scripture study.
    some of those TG references are such a waste of space!

  8. 8.

    The Pew Survey is interesting, but I wish that Mormons would be more cautious in crowing about the results. Two or three of the twelve questions on the Bible and Christianity were specifically about about Mormonism, and the Bible questions were at the Primary level (What is the first book of the Bible? Where was Jesus born? What prophet was associated with the Exodus?).

    It’s sad that more Americans don’t know the answers to such questions (even when offered in multiple choice form), but the fact that Latter-day Saints can answer them correctly has very little to with with how well they actually understand the contents of the Bible.

    I think that a more comprehensive test of biblical knowledge would show that Mormons are more familiar than most Christians with the basic narratives of Genesis and the Gospels (thanks to all those years of seminary!), but our knowledge of other parts of the Bible is, as Mattt says, “broad but shallow.”

  9. 9.

    I absolutely love your Reader’s Edition, Grant. It really makes so much more sense to format it that way. Far more readable because of the formatting.

    I think we all remember those awful websites that marked the beginning of the information age – flashing text, animated gifs, and horrific color schemes and font choices. It didn’t matter how good the information was, if I couldn’t access it easily and clearly, I wouldn’t.

    The internet has given us a wealth of experience on what is effective formatting and what is not. We have the tools and lack only the will to make such a change. Even the KJV would be more readable if it were organized better.

  10. 10.

    I was going to suggest you look at Grant’s Reader’s Edition, but he beat me to it!

    If the Church decides to stick with the KJV, it could still improve readability immensely with some few presentation changes to conform to modern biblical presentation style: paragraph format with superscripted verse numbers, in-text captions (not chapter summaries), bold or some other font to represent scriptural quotations, poetic material put in poetic lines, and do away with TG crossreferences altogether.

    I did those things in my Footnotes to the New Testament for LDS project. The only difference from your suggestions is that instead of minimizing footnotes I ramped them way up. But this is only necessary if we keep with the KJV; if we went to a modern translation, the footnotes could be cut way down.

  11. 11.

    One of the nice things about going to a digital edition of the Bible, is footnotes just become non-obtrusive embedded links.

  12. 12.

    Ardis (#1), you’re really dedicated to mark all the relevant footnotes like that! You also make a good point that it’s much easier with electronic versions of the text of the scriptures available to just format them how we want!

    Dan (#3), thanks for pointing out the pages with most and fewest footnotes. That’s something I might have thought to find out if I weren’t too lazy to look! (I clearly prefer information I can find by search engine to information I can find only by brute force.)

    Grant, thanks for recommending your Reader’s Edition. I was chatting with my sister Lynnette right after putting this post up, and she also recommended it. (And thanks, Kevin, for echoing the recommendation!) I think I may have even seen it while browsing in my university’s library. I’ll have to check it out!

    I’m comforted to hear that you all who know better than I do have already been concerned with this issue and reached (at least somewhat) similar conclusions.

    Matt (#11), it’s interesting that you say that, because if you look back at the post, it’s the obtrusiveness of embedded links that got me to thinking about this issue in the first place.

  13. 13.

    I don’t think there’s a prayer of a chance of revising the format of the English scriptures in our lifetime, at least officially.

    I go the other way. I think it’s unlikely it won’t be revised in our lifetime. If only because everyone is moving to electronic form where such revisions are easy. I’d be shocked if sometime in the next 8 years we don’t have an option for reading the scriptures in paragraph form at lds.org.

  14. 14.

    Clark, online may be a possibility, but I don’t see any possibility of doing a reformatted edition by the church on paper, which, despite our comfort with the internet and electronic devices, is still the way most Latter-day Saints read and study the scriptures and carry them to church — when I consider my family and the people I know at church, it’s a long stretch to think that “everyone” will embrace electronic formats anytime soon. I don’t see that changing for a very long time.

    I would be happy to be wrong.

  15. 15.

    Ziff,

    Dan (#3), thanks for pointing out the pages with most and fewest footnotes. That’s something I might have thought to find out if I weren’t too lazy to look! (I clearly prefer information I can find by search engine to information I can find only by brute force.)

    you’re welcome. I’m actually pleased that I still remember those, now 13 years after my mission. :)

  16. 16.

    By the way, there’s a fine article in this week’s New Yorker that reviews Carr’s book along with several other studies on how modern technology and the Internet are changing readers’ habits. It’s “The Information,” by Adam Gopnik (Feb. 14 & 21, 2011).

  17. 17.

    .

    I’m all for ditching divisions. At least in the versions for daily reading.

  18. 18.

    Gotta, say I am not bothered by the foot notes at all. I don’t see how the mere presence of a footnote or a hyper link would substantially changes an alert readers method of reading. How we read is a choice. If we are alert to that fact, then we can use what methods most appeal to us.

    I use both the KJV and NRSV. Something I really like is the fact that the NRSV changes the format of the text to show where the origional Hebrew or Greek was a song or poetry.

  19. 19.

    Reader’s Edition of the BoM and (I believe) Kevin Barney’s New Testament Footnotes for LDS. Love them. I would love the same for OT.

  20. 20.

    Ardis, I don’t think everyone will adopt electronic forms if only because some people are uncomfortable with new technology and because some people once they hit a certain age (often 30) just don’t want to change their way of doing things. That’s a lot of years for many people.

    That said I’ve been shocked at how quickly the adoption has been in my ward. I was one of the early adopters but I was shocked the last time I was able to go to Priesthood how many people are using phones for their lesson manual and scriptures.

    It’s an interesting challenge. I’m teaching Primary 7 right now which honestly has kind of dumb lessons oriented around just getting the kids familiar with the scriptures. Lots of scripture chases. It was a bit of a transition because frankly I’ve not used paper scriptures in years. I think I lost mine about 10 years ago but just did all my reading on my computer. Then when I got my iPhone I moved to that. Yet I obviously couldn’t do this for class so I borrowed my wife’s rather worn set to use.

    I think using paper scriptures is pretty helpful and I even think there’s something to be said for flipping pages with the kids trying to find the books. As for the difficult language I’m more mixed on it. I think as a broad education thing it’s probably a positive (just like giving lessons and talks in Church is a positive for people’s development)

  21. 21.

    I’ve placed the Harper Collin’s NSRV Study Bible on my wish list as well as Grant Hardy’s Reader’s Edition of the Book of Mormon.

    I realize the Doctrine and Covenants is inherently different from the Bible and Book of Mormon as it’s original language was English, but I’m just curious if there have been or will be similar projects for making the Doctrine and Covenants more readable (returning the text to paragraph form)? Or were Joseph’s revelations originally written in verses?

  22. 22.

    My son who was premature and had hydrocephalus, meningitis and encephalitis before he was two has trouble understanding anything but the first of multiple columns. I understand many with neurological problems have similar issues. My son loves Hardy’s text.

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