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, 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.

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 focus 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.