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.)

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Christopher de Hamel on a Canterbury Psalter

In language strikingly reminiscent of Jim Watts, Christopher de Hamel, medieval librarian at Cambridge University, discusses the ways books are, and are not, like relics.

Medieval illuminated manuscripts are the holy relics of our own time. They are often preserved, like sacred treasure of the middle ages, in special boxes in institutional strong-rooms and brought out only on special occasions for the edification of the public, displayed in the half-dark under layers of security glass. Unlike most works of art only small portions of any manuscript can be seen at once. What remains unseen merely adds to the mystery and the longing to turn the pages. As with most medieval relics, which are generally tiny fragments of something once much larger, engagement with illuminated manuscripts on public show usually requires great leaps of both imagination and faith.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Tactics for Teaching the Materiality of Scripture

The journal, Teaching Theology and Religion, has published a set of "Teaching Tactics" for introducing students to the materiality of scripture.

Dorina Miller Parmenter describes a class-room exercise to simulate the oral/written transmission of Gospels.

David Dault shows how to teach bibliographic analysis using an old copy of a Jewish prayer book.

Song-Chong Lee describes a week-long assignment in which students write and ritualize their own gohonzon scroll to learn about Soka Gakkai.

Jason Larson details an class-room exercise to let students experience the challenges of copying an old manuscript.

Sarah Schwartz describes a course-long series of experiences that lead her students from calligraphy to printing to memorized recitation.

In his introductory essay, Brent Plate notes that "the contributors are not merely concerned with reconstructing what some “original” community might have done with the text, but what the classroom communities can do with a text, and how we might reflect back on our own learning experiences. ... students are challenged to become aware of the sensorial nature of sacred texts, and of communication itself. They touch, see, and hear in new ways, learning with their bodies."

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Waving Bibles, Protesting Bathrooms

The Bathroom Wars of North Carolina continue on.

Raw Story posted this piece, with clickable headlines about the "angry bible-waving" mother of 12, screaming questions to Target customers like "Are you gonna let the devil rape your children?"

The video to which it referred is a great example of "performative texts." If you care to watch the clip, you'll hear the woman screaming a lot of what basically amounts to nonsense, with family in tow, but note how there's really nothing "biblical" in her soliloquy (if I might be excused such a term to describe what's going on here). She doesn't quote scripture, nor does she really even claim anything particularly "Christian" (reference to the devil aside).

What she does do is firmly hold high a bible. The camerawork shows the set up here: in the first two seconds the family is stopped, as they are just getting the protest going. As soon as they begin walking she raises the book up in the air. It stands as a visible beacon that guides them, not unlike a tour guide in NYC with a red umbrella. But the bible is never mentioned, never quoted from, never used for anything other than a visual display of some, unknown, power.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The library of Admont Stift as reliquery

On January 5, 2016, I visited the rococo library of Admont Stift.

The Benedictine monastery, Admont Stift, was founded in the 11th century in a wide valley in the Austrian alps. Today it claims to be the largest monastic establishment in Austria, including considerable land holdings and businesses including a winery and apothecary. Its buildings appear relatively modern, due to a devastating fire in 1865 that required almost complete rebuilding, and its prosperity is evident from its up-to-date facilities for visitors.

The baroque library of Admont Stift survived the nineteenth-century fire intact. Its large hall claims to be the longest of any monastery library worldwide, and its shelves hold 70,000 volumes.
It was finished in 1776 and its white paint, floral decorations and ceiling frescoes reflect the rococo style of the period. The frescoes’ subjects depict the uniting of scientific, humanistic and religious learning and reflect eighteenth century enlightenment thought with an authoritarian Hapsburg orientation. The library was recently refurbished and looks like new.

From the extensive facilities for visitors, including up-to-date ticket counters, restrooms, parking lots, and restaurant, it appears that the library attracts many tourists. They are encouraged by the single admission price to also visit the art and natural history museums in the same building. The art collection gives a quick review of changes in artistic styles from medieval through renaissance and baroque to rococo, before focusing on the monastery’s ecclesiastical treasures: reliquaries, vestments, chalices, etc.

The natural history museum is more extensive. It proves to be a deliberate reproduction of a “cabinet of curiosities.” The monastery had extensive collections that perished in the 1865 fire. The monks subsequently rebuilt a remarkable collection of stuffed or pickled wild-life, pinned insects, botanical specimens and minerals. One room presents a multi-media and child-friendly introduction to the local natural environment. But most of the museum preserves an older approach that emphasizes cataloguing and comparing species.

The museums of natural history and art join with the library in projecting the Benedictine ideal of the pursuit of learning, all learning, as a devotional ideal. The library shelves secular subjects in the south end and theological subjects in its north end, while saving the central rotunda for scripture and its ancient interpretation. The museums, then, extend this vision of universal scholarship centered around scripture to include artifacts and specimens.

But whereas the museum’s architecture and decoration is entirely functional, the library’s is quite the opposite: most would agree that rococo style is as far from functional as one can possibly get. Why the contrast?

A clue can be found in reliquaries displayed in the monastery’s art museum. Many here are made of gold and silver and decorated with jewels. All this to display and preserve small bodily relics—a piece of bone or hair or cloth. A reliquary proclaims the extraordinary significance of the apparently mundane objects it contains. The most elaborate in the Admont Stift treasury is a “monstrance” for displaying the host—the wheat wafer transformed by a priest’s blessing into the body of Christ and presented to congregants during Catholic Mass. A thin wheat wafer would be placed inside this gilded stand decorated with 2,175 gemstones to emphasize the superlative value of the host.

The rococo monastery library functions like the monstrance to proclaim the superlative value of its contents—in this case, of its books. By the eighteenth century, books had become common objects. Against the tendency to think of them as mundane, the rococo library encases them in rich art and decoration to show every visitor the importance of its contents. The library is a reliquary that emphasizes the treasure of religious, cultural and scientific knowledge.

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” by 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".