Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)

Monday, April 4, 2016

Seeing, Touching, Holding and Tasting Sacred Texts

I am hosting a symposium on the theme, "Seeing, Touching, Holding and Tasting Sacred Texts," this Thursday and Friday in Bochum, Germany. The symposium is part of the research of the Käte Hamburger Kolleg at the Center for Religious Studies of Ruhr University Bochum. This year's research theme is "religion and the senses."

The symposium includes the following presentations:

  • “Scripture’s Iconic Touch” by James W. Watts (Syracuse University/Ruhr University Bochum)
  • “Physiological Engagements with a Scriptural Guru: Ritualized Transactions between the Sikhs and Guru Granth Sahib” by Kristina Myrvold (Lineaus University)
  • “Infusions and Fumigations: Therapeutic Aspects of the Quran” by Katharina Wilkens (Ludwig Maximilians University, Munich)
  • “On Instant Scripture, Swallowing Scrolls and Proximal Texts: Some Insights into the Sensual Materiality of Texts and their Rituality in the Hebrew Bible and Beyond” by Christian Frevel (Ruhr University Bochum)
  • “Engaging all the Senses: On the Function of Multi-sensory Uses of Scripture in Jewish Religion” 
  • Marianne Schleicher (Aarhus University)
  • “Seeing, Touching, Holding, and Swallowing Tibetan Buddhist Texts” by Cathy Cantwell (Oxford University/Ruhr University Bochum)
  • “Affect Theory and Iconic Books” by Dorina Miller Parmenter (Spalding University)
  • “The Veneration of the Script and the Cult of the Book: Reflections on what Happened between the Scholarly Realms of Early China and Early Medieval China” by Licia di Giacinto (Ruhr University Bochum)
  • “Neo-Confucian Sensory Readings of Scriptures” by Yohan Yoo (Seoul National University)
  • “‘My living books, my wisdom, my knowledge’: Mani’s Revelation and Manichaean Religious Literacy” by 
  • Eduard Iricinschi (Ruhr University Bochum/ Friedrich Alexander University Erlangen)
  • “Noli me tangere? The Evidence of Physical Contact on Western Gospel Books” by David Ganz (University of Zürich)
  • “Sensing Scripture: What Artists’ Books Can Teach Us About Sacred Texts, and Vice Versa” by S. Brent Plate (Hamilton College)

The symposium will take place April 7, 9:00-17;45 and April 8, 9:00-3:00. This event is open to the public.

Friday, January 29, 2016

NYT Review of “Blooks: The Art of Books That Aren’t”

"It’s hard not to be charmed by the emotional intensity, inventiveness and sometimes sheer whimsy of the items in the chockablock display cases," says the New York Times of Mindell Dubansky's exhibit, “Blooks: The Art of Books That Aren’t.” The Guardian calls it "decidedly quirky – but utterly delightful." The display of 200 book-shaped objects from her collection can be seen at the Grolier Club in Manhattan through March 12th.

Dubanksy has been collecting blooks for nearly twenty years. This preservation librarian at the Metropolitan Museum of Art uses her collection to better understand people's love of books.

“People have a real love of the book as an object,” she said. “But what is that connection about? Why do we feel a need to live with books, to have them around? I figured that if I could eliminate the text and collect objects made to mimic the form of books, I could figure that out a little better.”
Indeed, it is hard to think of a better demonstration of people's affection for the codex shape itself. Their bibliophilia expresses itself in whimsically utilitarian cigarette holders and spice jars, and even gag gifts like exploding books. But it also takes book form in much more serious displays of affection. Truly iconic is this sculpture from the Cultural Revolution of Mao's Collected Works:

For more pictures and examples, see Dubansky's blog about blooks

Monday, December 28, 2015

Conference on Libraries, Montreal June 17-19 2016

The Promise of Paradise: Reading, Researching, and Using the Private Library

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
- Jorge Luis Borges

In recent years, the idea of the library has become increasingly important to scholars of and experts on architecture, creative writing, digital humanities, history, and numerous other fields. Our conference asks contributors to join our keynote speakers—celebrated author of The Library at Night (2007), Alberto Manguel, and expert on Marlon Brando’s library, Susan Mizruchi—to talk about how researchers, writers, and the general public can use the library as a tool for engaging with various fields of scholarship. Of particular interest to this conference are papers on personal libraries and libraries from the perspective of users.

Private libraries have many of the qualities of an archive: they are testaments to and records of an era in terms of culture, philosophical thought, historical knowledge, architectural design, and so forth. In the case of personal libraries, collections can paint the broadest picture of what and (sometimes) when ideas were being read, internalized, and absorbed into an owner’s life and work. Our conference invites contributors to offer methodological frameworks for considering general or specific libraries (public or private) with these benefits of the library in mind.

In considering these issues, our conference encourages papers that include, but are not limited to, some of the following issues:

• The Author’s Library and Personal Collection

• The Meanings of Marginalia

• Charting and Understanding Genealogy through the Library

• Creative Uses for Libraries

• Special Needs for Specialized Libraries

• Designing the Library: Architecture and the Use of Space

• Using and Preserving Libraries in Crisis: War, Liquidation, Dismemberment

• New Tools for the Library in the Digital Age

• Uncovering Hidden Libraries

• Oral Libraries: Storytelling and the Intangible Library

It is the intention of the organizers (Dr. Jason Camlot and Dr. J.A. Weingarten) to publish a selection of these conference papers in a scholarly edition, which will be submitted to McGill-Queen’s University Press within six months of the conference. The goal of this groundbreaking publication will be to reach a wide audience of readers interested in the library and to demonstrate to those readers the place of libraries in the future of the humanities.

Please send abstracts of 300-500 words (along with your name, institution, email, and tentative paper title) by 15 January 2016 to J.A. Weingarten at the following email address: ja.weingarten@concordia.ca.

The conference will be held at Concordia University on June 17-19, 2016.

cfp categories:

modernist studies

Monday, December 21, 2015

Marginalia and Its Disruptions

{from the Los Angeles Review of Books}

While there has been a growing conversation about the role of marginalia in the past two decades — including several library and art exhibitions devoted to the subject, studies like H. J. Jackson’s Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books (2001), and many of Grafton’s own books and essays — the debate about the appropriateness of writing in books is quite old. Considering marginalia have been found in texts for as long as there have been books, scrolls, or writings on papyrus, it seems odd to say that now is the moment. But indeed it may be. There is an obvious reason for this, and a less obvious one.
There is a second, less obvious reason for marginalia’s moment, joined to the first at an obtuse angle, and that is the diminishing status of the human body. If the book is being threatened with extinction in the wake of the digital, the human body is even more so. Essays, movies, novels, speculations, and suspicions pervade contemporary culture concerning artificial intelligence, robotics, and the “singularity.” Ray Kurzweil’s future — replicated in films like Ex Machina, television shows like Caprica, and precursed by the disembodied HAL and Philip K. Dick — foresees a jacked-in consciousness, with little left of a sensate body that moves and breathes and reads.


Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Religious Book as Object: An Interview with Do...

[The Material Religions blog has published Urmila Mohan's an interview with Dorina Miller Parmenter on "The Religious Book as Object." I reproduce it here under the terms of Material Religion's Creative Commons license.]

Dorina Miller Parmenter approaches the book as object, inspired by her material explorations as a former book artist as well as a desire to understand why and how the book has come to be so important in religion, especially the Judeo-Christian tradition.

MLA citation format: Mohan, Urmila and Dorina Miller Parmenter, "The Religious Book as Object:An Interview with Dorina Miller Parmenter" Web blog post. Material Religions. 16 December 2015. [date of access]

UM: How did you get interested in materials and objects in religion?

DMP: I was an art major in college, focusing on crafts rather than the so-called fine arts, and then went to graduate school where I studied ceramics and metalsmithing. I finished my degree in art by studying the history and designs of Medieval treasure bindings and creating my own jeweled and enameled covers for books that I bound. When exhibiting the finished products, the queries that I received most from viewers concerned the contents of the books, implying that the texts must be special to warrant such attention on the covers. Upon discovering that the books had blank pages, the disappointed viewers often shared their take-away lesson with me: “Well, I guess you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.”
Relic of the Inquisition (Diary 85) 1995; paper, leather, sterling sliver, enamel, and stones;
5.5 x 5.5 x 1.25 in. Photo courtesy of Dorina Miller Parmenter.
After I got over my irritation that people seemed more concerned with the implied but absent text than they were appreciative of the art that I had created, I realized my own take-away lesson: people do judge books by their covers, among other things. The material elements of a book—including its cover, its size, the materials used to make it, where it is kept, how it is used, and so on—send signals about its purpose and value. When I then went to graduate school to study religion, my attention was drawn to the significations of the material elements of religious scripture, which seemed to be overlooked in textual hermeneutics as well as in ritual studies.

I no longer practice book arts, although every now and then I conduct basic bookbinding workshops to invite people to think about the materiality of books or the impact of different ways of presenting writing.

Linda's Clan (Diary 90) 1996; paper, leather, brass, fine silver, enamel, and stones;
7 x 7.5 x 1.5 in. Photo courtesy of Dorina Miller Parmenter.
UM: Do you approach ‘religious books’ and ‘texts’ as sacred objects or sacred knowledge?

DMP: My view is that the attribution of ‘sacred’ to books and texts comes from the material practices that surround them as objects more than from the meaning of the words conveyed by the text. My mentor and colleague, James Watts, articulated this well in “The Three Dimensions of Scriptures,” stating that scripture involves the ritualization of three related dimensions of texts: semantic, performative, and iconic. The iconic dimension—the representative and recognizable material form of the text that acts as a signifier separately from the signification of any particular words—is crucial to this formula.

I conduct most of my research in relation to the iconicity of biblical texts, such as an adorned Torah scroll in a synagogue ark, two arched tablets on a granite monument, or the display of a family Bible within the home. As visual objects they might act as symbols of God’s revelation and/or religious history and tradition, as tangible objects engaged in ritual they might be perceived to act as mediators of divine presence, as images and objects manipulated within particular social contexts they might communicate power and legitimacy.
"Bishop High Prayer Book", CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, Image Credit
While my initial interest in the iconic dimension of the Christian Bible related to lavishly adorned books, recently I have been studying rituals that demonstrate an opposing sentiment. In some sectors of contemporary American evangelicalism it is common to display heavily used or worn-out Bibles, often held together with duct tape. In this case the iconic dimension signifies the piety of the individual user who is intimately bound up with the book, and reveals how the book acts as a mediator of God’s saving grace that “holds together” not only the book but its owner. 
"Southern T-shirt", CC BY-NC 2.0, Image Credit 
UM: Would you agree that the materiality of religious objects tends to be marginalised in religious studies in favor of scriptural exegesis?

DMP: Fifteen years ago I would have agreed that materiality was marginalized in favor of textual interpretation in religious studies, but I think that a focus on everyday objects has moved more toward the center. This has been furthered by the important and prolific works of David Morgan, S. Brent Plate, Colleen McDannell, and Sally Promley, among others, and the publication of "Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief."

UM: Is there more work to be done in highlighting the importance of religious materiality?

DMP: I don’t think there can be too much emphasis on materiality in the study of religion. In relation to materiality and scripture, I’ll take this chance to promote the organization SCRIPT – The Society for Comparative Research on Iconic and Performative Texts. We have sessions at the AAR/SBL annual meeting as well as at some regional and international conferences, and published the anthology Iconic Books and Texts in 2013. The conversations around SCRIPT are great because they are cross-cultural, and one can think about new ideas by hearing about issues of materiality and scripture in different traditions.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Enacting “Electronic Qur’ans”: Tradition Without a Precedent

On the Material Religions blog, Natalia Suit:
describes instances in Egypt in which the Qur'ān is enacted through the daily routines of worship and piety known as the etiquette of the muṣḥaf. These practices, she argues, are inseparably entangled with technology. A book made of paper is not the same as the Qur'ānic text on the screen of a phone. A text visible on the page does not necessarily appear in the same way as its digitized version under a plastic cover. When the medium of the message changes, the etiquette of the muṣḥaf changes as well, and practices are redefined to accommodate this new and unprecedented materiality of the text.
This essay will be of particular interest for the discussion of how digitization is affecting the ritualization of iconic texts. Suit quotes an anecdote that exempts digital texts from purity concerns by comparing computer or phone memory with human memory. This reproduces a very old tendency to compare the contents of books with the minds of human beings: both books and people have physical exteriors and immaterial interiors that, according to very many religious traditions, are not confined to their particular physical containers. Digitization drives this analogy even further into the heavens--or, at least, "the cloud".

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Cultural Functions of Libraries

Writing in the New York Times, Alberto Manguel concisely captures the cultural function of libraries as three-fold:
as preservers of the memory of our society, as providers of the accounts of our experience and the tools to navigate them — and as symbols of our identity.
Since the time of Alexandria, libraries have held a symbolic function. For the Ptolemaic kings, the library was an emblem of their power; eventually it became the encompassing symbol of an entire society, a numinous place where readers could learn the art of attention which, Hannah Arendt argued, is a definition of culture. But since the mid-20th century, libraries no longer seem to carry this symbolic meaning and, as mere storage rooms of a technology deemed defunct, are not considered worthy of proper preservation and funding.
Manguel lists chronicles the many ways that librarians are diversifying their services to remain relevant and fundable in the current political and cultural climate. But he argues that "If we change the role of libraries and librarians without preserving the centrality of the book, we risk losing something irretrievable."
Every economic crisis responds, first of all, by cutting funds to culture. But the dismantling of our libraries and changing their nature is not simply a matter of economics. Somewhere in our time, we began to forget what memory — personal and collective — means, and the importance of common symbols that help us understand our society.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Ten Years of Artists' Books

At the Brooklyn Public Library

I wish I could get to this new show at the Brooklyn Public Library, curated by Donna Seager of Seager Gray Gallery, Mill Valley, California. First, I love that a gallery curates a show for a library, already colliding a couple spaces that need more collision and collusion. Second, it's a fine collection of artists working with/on/against/for books in multiple ways. In a small collection of objects, some of the range of what we call "artists' books" can be seen.

Third, and bringing me to the interests of this blog, are the myriad religious references. I've known Meg Hitchcock's work for a few years and am especially fond of her abilities to find connections between the texts of the western religious traditions, while the cost of making the connections is the cutting up of the books, an act that could be seen as desecrating.

Other religious borrowings include Islam Aly who adopts a history of Quranic bookmaking and calligraphy for his political piece on Tahrir Square. Julie Chen devises an accordion book with a sort of spiritual journey invoked. Lisa Kokin self-consciously creates a "page" of Karl Marx's Das Capital in the format of a leaf of sacred text, or perhaps ritual cloth. And Elizabeth Sher's "Blog" borrows the format of torah scrolls and placing them in what looks like a coffin.

The well-photographed objects of the exhibition are available in the catalog available in non-book form at ISSUU. Well worth a leaf through.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

China nervous about the Magna Carta

Exhibition of an early copy of the Magna Carta was suddenly cancelled and moved in Beijing. The New York Times reports:
Magna Carta — the Great Charter — is on tour this year, celebrating eight centuries since it was issued in 1215 by King John of England. ... One of the few surviving 13th-century copies of the document was to go on display this week from Tuesday through Thursday at a museum at Renmin University of China in Beijing .... But then the exhibit was abruptly moved to the British ambassador’s residence, with few tickets available to the public and no explanation given. (The document is also set to go on display at the United States Consulate in Guangzhou and at a museum in Shanghai, the embassy said.)
One source indicated that Renmin, which has close ties to the government, cancelled the exhibit at the request of the Ministry of Education. A Western academic reacted with a typically dismissive scholastic attitude:
“To get kind of wound up about an old document like the Magna Carta? They’re a little bit brittle and fragile, aren’t they, Chinese leaders?” said Kerry Brown, a former British diplomat who was stationed in Beijing and now serves as director of the China Studies Center at the University of Sydney in Australia. “Poor dears.”
But the Chinese governments actions more likely reflect views voiced by Hu Jia, "a prominent Chinese dissident," who thought that Chinese leaders worried that the exibit would be popular and that "many students would flock there. ... They fear that such ideology and historical material will penetrate deep into the students’ hearts.”

How this particular exhibit fares in today's China remains to be seen. The collection of evidence on this blog over the years suggests, however, that the Chinese estimate of the cultural potency of ancient documents like the Magna Carta may well be more realistic than dismissive academics like to think.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Surprise! E-books decline, independent bookstores increase

The New York Times reported last month that e-book sales have leveled off, and may even be starting to decline:
E-book sales fell by 10 percent in the first five months of this year, according to the Association of American Publishers .... Digital books accounted last year for around 20 percent of the market, roughly the same as they did a few years ago.
Meanwhile, independent bookstores are staging a small resurgence:
The American Booksellers Association counted 1,712 member stores in 2,227 locations in 2015, up from 1,410 in 1,660 locations five years ago.
As a result, "Publishers ... are pouring money into their print infrastructures and distribution," such as huge new warehouses and fast, 2-day distribution to bookstores.

The article attributes the change to plummeting consumer interest in e-readers, like the Kindle and Nook, that have largely been replaced by tablets and large-screen cell phones. But publishers still expect digital texts to continue to be popular, on one platform or another.

Maybe. What the article does not consider is the resilience of the book as a cultural icon that represents enduring value and worth. No digital platform shows any signs of gaining that kind of status. Until it does, digital texts might better be classified as the latest form of ephemeral text.

In the forms of newspapers, blackboards, broadsheets, wax tablets, ostraca, and unbaked clay tablets, ephemeral texts are as old as writing itself. They are always highly utilitarian even in their iconic uses as receipts and currency. The mutability of digital media makes it an effective replacements for older ephemeral texts. They are well on the way to replacing both currency and newspapers.

Books occupy a different place in human symbolism. They represent the permanence of knowledge and value. They are, in many cases, a very practical as well as symbolic technology for cultural preservation. That does not describe all books, of course. But it is possible that in retrospect, the e-book revolution of the early twenty-first century will have succeeded only in skimming off the ephemeral texts that used to take book form, such as pulp paperback novels and phone books.