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.)

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article attributes the change to plummeting consumer interest in e-readers, like the Kindle and Nook, that have largely been replaced by tablets and large-screen cell phones.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.

Monday, September 14, 2015

New articles: Religions & Books, and Iconic Scriptures

The new issue of Mémoires du livre / Studies in Book Culture is devoted to the theme of "Livre et religion / Religion and the Book." The articles focuses on various aspects of the multifarious interactions between religions and books. I particularly recommend the introduction by the guest editor, Scott McLaren, who draws together the theme and the articles in a broad theoretical overview:
 My own article uses the example of the Jewish Torah to emphasize that ritualizing the semantic dimension of texts does not necessarily take historical priority over ritualizing the iconic and performative dimensions.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Materializing the Bible

James Bielo and Amanda White have created a website that catalogs Bible-based attractions around the world. Materializing the Bible locates and describes 145 attractions that "create material environments directly inspired by biblical texts." The welcome introduces the project in words very similar to those that headline this blog: "People do more than read Bibles. They use the written words to make material environments. What happens when the Bible is transformed across different media?"

Bielo and White catalog the attractions under seven headings: Creation Museums, Re-Creations, Transmission Museums, Holy Land Replicas, Archeology Museums, Gardens, and Art Collections.  A customized Google Map allows viewers to see their distribution by region and by category.

This website is a valuable demonstration that such Bible attractions are widespread and deserve to be understood as a typical phenomenon, especially when we remember that the stations of the cross and art collections in Catholic (and many other) churches are smaller and much more numerous iterations of the same phenomenon. This catalog of Bible-based attractions should stimulate research on their religious and social functions.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Bibliography on Books in Art

A query about studies of depictions of books in art produced many suggestions this month on SHARP-L, the discussion list of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing. It is interesting how many of them focus on artistic depictions of women reading or writing. When we first compiled a pictorial database for the Iconic Books Project, we noticed the prominent association women with books across a wide variety of cultures and throughout history. Since books in art have been a key interest of the Iconic Books Project from its inception, I have taken the liberty of compiling the suggestions here. 

Books and articles:
Adler, Laure, Stefan Bollman and Jean Torrent, Les femmes qui lisent sont dangereuses ("Reading Women Are Dangerous"), Flammarion, 2006, new ed. 2015.
Adler, Laure, Stefan Bollman and Jean Torrent, Les femmes qui lisent sont de plus en plus dangereuses ("Reading Women are More & More Dangerous") Flammarion, 2012.
Allen, James Smith. In the Public Eye: a History of Reading in Modern France, 1800-1940. Princeton University Press, 1991.  Chapter Five: “Artistic Images.”
Brown, Kathryn. Women Readers in French Painting 1870-1890. Ashgate, 2012. Introduction online here.  
Docherty, Linda J. "Women as Readers: Visual Interpretations," Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 107 (October 1997): 335-88, online here.
Inmann, Christiane. Forbidden Fruit : a History of Women and Books in Art. Prestel, 2009.
Lerner, Loren. “William Notman’s Portrait Photographs of Girls Reading from the 1860s to 1880s: A Pictorial Analysis Based on Contemporary Writings.” Papers of The Bibliographical Society of Canada 47/1 (2009), online here.  
Long, Elizabeth. Book Clubs: Women and the Uses of Reading in Everyday Life, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. Chapter 1.
Stewart, Garrett. The Look of Reading: Book, Painting, Text. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
Thornton, Dora. The Scholar in His Study: Ownership and Experience in Renaissance Italy. Yale University Press, 1998.
Warner, William. “Staging Readers Reading.” Online here.
Zanker, Paul. The Mask of Socrates: the Image of the Intellectual in Antiquity. Tr. A. Shapiro. Berkeley: University of California, 1995.

Exhibition and Sale catalogs:
il libro come tema, National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome, September – November, 2006.
Das Buch in der Kunst - die Kunst im Buch. Graphik-Salon Gerhart Söhn, 1984.

Library and Museuam Collections:
Antwerp City Library: Former Antwerp city librarian Ger Schmook (1898-1985) collected a huge set of images of books in art; it’s a collection of photocopies with a card file.
Metropolitan Museum of Art: catalog by Mindell Dubansky of photographs and descriptions of bindings and images of books depicted in the art works of the Met: “Catalog of Bookbindings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art” [v. 9.] European Paintings, Representations of the book in art. -- [v. 10.] The Lehman Collection, Representations of the book in art.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Dr Seuss Books in Bronze

This winter, I found myself with an hour to spare in Springfield, Massachusetts, so I visited the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden.

What a delightful place! The bronze sculptures by Lark Grey Dimond-Cates were unveiled in 2002. They reproduce some of Seuss's most famous characters around or popping out of two giant books.

Nearby is a likeness of Theodore Geissel (Dr. Seuss) himself at his desk with the Cat in the Hat looking over his shoulder.

Now here are iconic books in every sense of the term!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Iconic Books & Texts in Paperback!

Iconic Books and Texts will be available in paperback in August. It can be ordered from the publisher, Equinox, or from the north American distributor, ISD, which lists it on sale for $24.

Using picture of Bible in intra-Christian polemics

Religion Dispatches reports that eight "traditionalist" churches have joined forces against their progressive Christian neighbor church in Phoenix. The effort is clearly part of their concern over the liberalization of marriage laws in the US.

What fascinates me is the iconic old book on their banner. Presumably a Bible, it nevertheless appears less like an iconic Bible than like an old book. Never mind that it looks nothing like most evangelical bibles sold today--either glossy or leather, floppy or paperback. The picture answers the banner's question definitively: the old book is the opposite of progressive. 

Books beat e-readers as momentos

The tech columnist, Nick Bilton, urged his mother to use e-readers instead of her beloved books ("In a Mother’s Library, Bound in Spirit and in Print, NY Times, May 13, 2015). Once she died, though, he experienced a change of heart. 
Now that she was gone, all I cared about were her physical books.
Yes, as a technology columnist, I have become acutely aware of technology’s built-in expiration date. Kindles, iPhones and those new smartwatches are designed to become outdated, and quickly. Technology is about the future, not the past. ... As VHS tapes turned to DVDs and later streaming services, I didn’t think twice about the lost physical objects — rather, I rejoiced in their disappearance.
But books, I now understand, are entirely different.
... I love listening to audiobooks when I drive. And taking a Kindle on a long trip is nothing short of magical. But that doesn’t mean I want my mother’s old Kindle to remember her by. And I certainly wouldn’t get much from her Audible collection.
Instead, I want her physical books. I want to be able to smell the paper, to see her handwriting inside, to know that she flipped those pages and that a piece of her lives on through them.
Bilton emphasizes how his senses interact with books differently than with digital texts, and that this makes all the difference for his memories of his mother. It is an old observation that our senses engage our memories in a variety of ways. Smell and sound can often provoke vivid recall of events years in the past. 

Sense and text/sense and scripture is on the research agenda of several of us this coming year. Bilton reminds us to consider the close connection between sensation--touch, smell, sight--and memory. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Printing in Blood

A Lebanese Art and Culture magazine, Audio Kultur, has used human blood to print its issue commemorating the Armenian genocide.

NPR reports that

Lebanon became home to large numbers of Armenians fleeing the Turks during World War I. While many emigrated during the Lebanese civil war, several Beirut neighborhoods remain centers of Armenian culture.

So just how do you publish in blood? The magazine approached five notable Lebanese-Armenian artists, from musicians to designers. Phlebotomists drew the blood, collecting it in vials.

"Obviously when you do something like this it becomes a statement, and the reader will take away from it whatever they want to take away from it," Colacion told the Daily Star. "But what we want to do is just kind of celebrate this rich culture, which impacts all of us every day, especially in the arts."

Audio Kultur produced a video about the process and its goals:

The video ends with the text: "100 Years Later, Armenian blood is being spilled for recognition."

Writing in blood identifies texts with human bodies. The tendency to equate texts and humans is endemic to the history and rituals of textual culture, as demonstrated clearly by the multi-cultural essays in Kristina Myrvold's The Death of Sacred Texts. Blood writing has to my knowledge been used most recently to create a relic text at the opposite end of the political spectrum, a Qur'an written in Saddam Hussein's blood.

SCRIPT at EIR/AAR Montreal May

SCRIPT is providing two panels on the theme of “Devotion to and with Books” for the Eastern International Regional  meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Montreal this week-end.

Both panels will take place on May 2nd in Room 204 of the Birks Building on the campus of McGill University

1:30 p.m.
Chair: Michael Como (Columbia)
1. Rachel Fell McDermott (Barnard/Columbia) “What Happens When Love is Transposed:
The Story of a South Asian Devotional Poetry Genre that was Birthed, Once”
2. Dai Newman (Syracuse) “The Family: A Proclamation in Three Dimensions: Contemporary LDS Scripturalization”
3. James Watts (Syracuse) “Book Aniconism in Christian Tradition and Ritual Practice”

3:00 p.m.
Chair: James Watts (Syracuse)
4. Michael Como (Columbia) “Buddhist Sutras: Desires and Devotions”
5. Urmila Mohan (London) “Preformed or Performed? Embroidery as Devotion in ISKCON”
6. Discussion: “Devotion to and with Books