Cloth or Paper? Bavinck RD Cover Concerns

[The definition of a bibliophile is “one who loves books, but especially for qualities of format.” I admit to being one. This post is intended for my fellow bibliophiles.]

Cloth-covered books are durable, resilient, and protect valuable books for decades of use, so I appreciate publishers who print books in cloth and find it easy to pay extra few bucks for these volumes.

However, not everything that looks like “cloth” is genuine cloth. Publishers have become advanced with using faux cloth covers, which amount to pressed and texturized paper used as an inexpensive way to add grain to a hardcover book without the added cost of real cloth. But those volumes are typically not sold as “cloth.”

Which brings me to yesterday when I received my long-awaited copy of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Four (Baker Academic, 2008). J.I. Packer says this work “remains after a century the supreme achievement of its kind.” Now completely translated from Dutch, it stands as one of the great reformed systematic theologies in the English language, and sports a hefty list price ($180.00)—a small price for a set I intend to use the rest of my life and one day pass to my children.

The first three of my volumes—all recently purchased—were genuine cloth covered (as advertised). Or so I assumed. But my curiosity was raised yesterday when my fourth and final volume arrived. I removed the dust jacket and noticed the cover on the final volume lacked the same depth of texture as the first three volumes. And it didn’t have the same laminated matte finish over the cloth but the feel of, well, paper. That’s when I decided to tug on the spine. [For those of you longtime TSS readers you will not be surprised at my biblio-destructive tendencies]. I pinched the cover over the spine, and with little effort, the cover tore like a piece of newspaper. Cloth doesn’t rip (at least not diagonally).

As you can see from the pics, the cover on my volume is nothing more than pressed paper—a cloth-like feel, a cloth-like appearance, but without any cloth.

My tinge of guilt for tearing Bavinck (gasp!) was overcome by the feeling of adrenaline a muscle man must experience tearing phone books. So I decided to test my three other Bavinck volumes. I discovered two volumes were genuinely cloth (absolutely would not rip even under intense pressure), and a second volume that was paper. Here’s what I found:

Volume 1 – May 2007 printing – cloth
Volume 2 – August 2006 printing – paper
Volume 3 – July 2007 printing – cloth
Volume 4 – 2008 printing – paper

As you can see from the table of contents page in volume 4, Baker claims all four volumes were printed in cloth.

I’ve contacted Baker Academic and will pass along updates as I receive them, especially if I can find a way to replace the paper editions with cloth editions.

Some questions for TSS readers:

(1) Do you own copies of Baker’s printings of Reformed Dogmatics? Which volumes? What are the print dates?

(2) Does the copyright page claim the volume is cloth?

(3) If so—and if you dare—pinch the top of the cover over the spine and try ripping it (ever so slightly) to see if you, too, have a “paperback”. And let me know in the comments. [No need for any more examples.]

Perhaps—and let’s hope—my two copies are aberrations.

29 thoughts on “Cloth or Paper? Bavinck RD Cover Concerns

  1. I, too, fit the description of a bibliophile! I also own Vol. 2 of Bavinck’s ‘Reformed Dogmatics’. It claims to be cloth. I would judge it to be compressed paper, though I’ve not gone as far as tearing the spine – can’t quite bring myself to do so.

  2. Okay, I seem to have the same editions you have (same dates published). And, like you, both volumes you referenced tore. All four volumes claim to be cloth. You’re on to something.

  3. First of all, so heinous to change format within a set. That’s inexcusable.

    I had that happen to me with Bock’s 2 volume Luke commentary. 1 was normal cloth with shiny dustjacket. 2 was some weird, imitation hardback that looked like the shiny dustjacket.

    Who are the ad wizards who came up with that one?

    I’m not a dustjacket fan, but am stuck with such on that set so it doesn’t look silly due to mismatch.

    I don’t have the Bavinck and hate the thought of $180 for an inferior product.

  4. Tony,

    I may have figured out what the issue is. I talked to Jay here at RHB and he said that when you register a number with ISBN it gives you very few options. Essentially (in his words) cloth is shorthand for any hardback. If you look at the new Bavink title “Essays on Religion, Science, and Society” it is clearly a paper hardcover, but the ISBN says it is cloth.


  5. i have volume one, print date 2003, doesnt say, but looks and feels like cloth. pinch test held.

  6. your pictures of books are usually inspiring. that one turned my stomach. Bavinck’s 4 vol. set was my forthcmoing birthday present, i’m putting it on hold until i hear more on what Baker plans to do about this.

  7. Thanks Seth. But the argument is not persuasive. Why would volumes 1+3 be covered differently from volumes 2+4? There is not only a question of terminology but also a matter of consistency at play here. Secondly, I’m not sure we should adjust our definition of “cloth” because one publisher uses it as a synonym for “hardcover.” Still interested in hearing from Baker directly.

    Thanks for reading.


  8. I too would like to know those answers. Let us all know. And we here at RHB read your blog daily.


  9. I don’t have these volumes, but the subject makes me want to ask: do you write and highlight in your books? It seems like I can get more into the text when I am marking it up, but then I feel guilty. Especially when it is a hardback that, like you said, I could pass down to my children.


  10. Hello John. I do mark up my books which is why I want to pass them on to my kids. I want them–when they are old enough–to dialog with me throughout the book even if I’m no longer around. So I want durable books, but books that are marked up, too.


  11. tony,

    same deal with me too. i didn’t try vol. 4 since i’m sure we all have the 1st printing, but i did try vol. 2 and it tore pretty easily. sad. i hope Baker rectifies this situation appropriately.

    by the way, missed you at Banner this year!

  12. I just had to chuckle as I read this. Between you and Mark Bertrand of the Bible Design and Binding blog, you’re gonna ruin me for anything less than quality if I don’t do something! ;)

  13. Hello Stephen. What a joy it was to meet you in Louisville recently my friend. … Keep the standards high, to the glory of God.


  14. Friends:

    Perhaps I can clarify the situation. Comment number five above, coming indirectly from Jay at RHB, explains our terminology. In the industry “cloth” is indeed used as shorthand for any type of hardback. Books are either cloth or paper. Subtleties such as the actual cover material used on a hardback (paper, kivar, cloth) are not included in our basic descriptions. Nor do we indicate whether the binding is sewn or glued. I suspect the main reason is that our descriptive materials are aimed at meeting the needs of retailers, not bibliophiles.

    All four Bavinck volumes were printed with paper(Permalink)covers over boards from the outset. It’s rare for us to use actual cloth over the boards.

    I would like to call your attention, however, to the fact that all four of the Bavinck were produced with sewn bindings. We think a sewn binding has a greater impact on a book’s durability than cover material does. Hence, for the Bavinck volumes we chose to invest in a more expensive binding rather than in more expensive cover material.

    Baker Publishing Group has been producing high-quality books for seventy years. Economic realities and technological advancements have introduced changes along the way to be sure, but the Baker family and staff members in all departments (editorial, design, production, art, sales, marketing) still retain many of our founder’s old-fashioned values. We’re book lovers and readers and we want our books to be cherished and read. We use high-quality materials and processes with a goal of providing the best possible value and experience to our readers. Of course, there are trade-offs involved. We address them while holding in tension our twin values of quality and value.

    Thank you for your interest in our work. May I now be so bold as to gently urge you to stop ripping your Bavincks?

    Jim Kinney
    Editorial director, Baker Academic

  15. Thanks for the update, Jim.

    You are absolutely right on the binding quality. Very nicely sewn. And even more importantly, those in the reformed community are grateful Baker produced one of the greatest systematic theologies (now finally) in the English language. I’m certain Bavinck’s set (now complete) will finish at the top of our list of books of the year for 2008. It deserves recognition and will rank with the ESV Study Bible as this year’s most important publishing feats.

    But I’m still puzzled over the terms used (LOC gives the option of “hc” not only “cloth” ) and the inconsistency of the Bavinck covers. Very clearly 1+3 are different from 2+4.

    Bottom line, the ease with which the covers on volumes 2+4 rip does reflect poorly on the book’s construction and make me doubtful these volumes will withstand years of use.

    But I will gladly pay to rebind Bavinck in the future to preserve the content Baker has so richly provided. And I think I speak for many in thanking Baker for investing the money needed to translate this work (knowing the book would never appear on the NYTimes list of bestsellers).

    Blessings and thanks for your editorial work, Jim!


  16. Thanks for your heads-up on the cover issue with Herman Bavinck complete Reformed Dogmatics. I have been considering making the purchase. I will now wait and see if you get any response from Baker. Please keep us informed on this matter. I check your blog more than once a day. Best one on the net.
    Thanks – James J. Johnson

  17. Interestingly, I looked at Andreas Kostenberger’s “John” commentary in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, published by Baker Academic, and the inside of the work identifies it as a “hardcover” as opposed to cloth. Baker has obviously has the option of calling a work a “hardcover”; there are more than two options. Even if nothing changes in the cover material, the next edition should be marked and advertised properly.

  18. Being a bit of an uber bookworm myself, I have to admit being surprised when I ordered an old multi-volume copy of Thomas Chalmers’ “The Christian and Civic Economy of Large Towns” and the binding was tattered and worn along the edges. It reminded me how novel I have become to expect high gloss and commercial appeal to my choice books, even classic books.

    Although I give praise to the Lord for this: It was fun to think that I might actually have the books of a great saint from a time roughly close to his generation (I got the books from a library in Scotland!). And it is fun getting to blow the dust off the old fashioned hard cover jackets, like Indiana Jones blowing the dust off of some Incan artifact.

  19. Bummer response from Baker in #16 above. I liked your comments in #8 Tony, where you said “I’m not sure we should adjust our definition of ‘cloth’ because one publisher uses it as a synonym for ‘hardcover.'” Baker’s response here does not seem to sufficiently answer your point, I think; though I appreciated your gracious response immediately following (#17). I thought it well of you to also mention that there was another option available to Baker from the Library of Congress. The same point was given further credibility by example in response #21… and from one of Baker’s own publishings no less. Clearly someone at Baker had discernment enough to make such distinctions prior to publication.

    As someone who loves books I know what I understand “cloth” to mean as related to book bindings. And (in my case at least) that might have made an influence on my purchase. For bigger ticket items, such as this one, I have actually ordered books from overseas publishers when I disliked a domestic product, or foregone a purchase altogether. So an argument based on an industry’s decision to alter a previously understood working definition to fit new economic challenges does not play well in my hearing.

    I don’t think I even heard an apology in there.

    Thank you for noticing this Tony. You have done us all a service. (“Buyer Beware”)

  20. Hello Tony. I just discovered your site yesterday, and after reading many of your blogs, especially your wonderful study on creating a Puritan library, I’ve decided to post a comment of my own.

    I just wanted to confess that I too am a bibliophile, and suffer from Book-Lust. I buy books faster than I can read them. I’m sure that I won’t be able to read all that I currently own, even if I lived the length of 10 lifetimes. My great love, like you and many of your readers, is of the Puritans. And it is always a joy to find more and more Christians who love the Puritans as I do.
    Because of your post on Bavinck’s ‘Reformed Dogmatics’, I just purchased the set (for under $100 at the Westminster Book Store). It saddens me that I will get inferior covers on these books, but I think if I am able to actually put the time into reading them, the positives I gain will outweigh the negatives of paper covers.
    Plus, I know my pastor will be overoyed when he finds out that I bought the set… ( I think he’s currently writing a biography on Bavinck, or has written one… not sure).

    – Alex

  21. Alex,
    You don’t happen to be living in the Yorba Linda area, are you? A certain pastor there has just recently finished a biography on Bavinck….

    Anyhow, I too have bought the first three, and can’t wait until I have the time to read them!!


  22. As a matter of fact I do, Clayton. My pastor is Ron Gleason at Grace Presbyterian in Yorba Linda.

    Good guess :)

    – Alex

  23. Aaah, yes, I thought so! Grace is where I did my internship while I was at Westminster. I’m looking forward to reading all 400+ pages of the biography when it becomes available.

    Say Hi to Ron for me…


  24. I thought they didn’t look right. I just thought they were cheaply made.


  25. Hi Tony. Writing from Asunción, Paraguay (South America). It’s 2018 now so it’s quite late to comment on this post, but here it goes anyway.

    I wanted to buy a Bavinck set for so long, and just now I was able to afford one. I purchased it and indeed, the binding was sewn which was a great and nice surprise.

    But the books themselves are just paper hardback covers. This was disappointing; these books are meant to be used! And a paper hardcover will break after modest use.

    So, I’m now researching clear plastic covers which could protect my books, because they WILL be heavily used (I plan to teach all my dogmatics courses from it). So if you have any recommendation about any plastic clear cover I’d be grateful.

    Thanks and blessings!

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