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.)

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Unreadably Small Bibles (again)

Nanotechnology experts in Haifa, Israel, have etched the entire text of the Hebrew Bible on to a 0.01 inch square surface, "less than half the size of a grain of sugar," according to the AP. " They chose the Jewish Bible to highlight how vast quantities of information can be stored on minimum amounts of space. " The Jerusalem Post adds that "The fact that the Bible contains a large amount of text - about 10 million bits - was a major factor in choosing to store it at high density on silicon."

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Symposium on Iconic Books

The first Symposium on Iconic Books took place on October 18-20, 2007.  Scholars from eight American and British universities gathered in Syracuse to discuss the phenomenon of iconic books and texts in a variety of cultures and time periods.

I have now put online a synopsis of the Symposium's presentations and discussions, which is also available by clicking the Symposium 2007 link at left.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Magna Carta Bought, Will Stay in U.S.

As predicted, the winning bidder for the 1297 Magna Carta auctioned by Sotheby's yesterday was motivated by the desire to keep it in the USA. The Guardian reports:

David Rubenstein, co-founder of the Carlyle Group private equity firm, paid $21.3m (£10.6m) for the document ...

Rubenstein, who worked in the White House during the Jimmy Carter administration, said: "Today is a good day for our country. I was moved when I saw the manuscript at Sotheby's and I was concerned that the only copy that was in America would escape. I was convinced that it needed to stay here.

"This document stands the test of time. There is nothing more important than what it represents. I am privileged to be the new owner, but I am only the temporary custodian. This is a gift to the American people. It is important to me that it stays in the United States."

However, lest the former colonies congratulate themselves too much, Oxfor'd Bodleian library indulged in what the Guardian characterizes as "scholarly one-upmanship" by displaying for one only day all four of its copies of the Magna Carta. Three date from 1217 and one from 1225, all older than than the copy auctioned yesterday. Hugh Doherty, an expert on medieval manuscripts working at Oxford, described the history of the trans-Atlantic rivalry:

His digging uncovered government records revealing the spluttering outrage of Lincoln cathedral when its copy was stranded in the United States on the outbreak of the second world war. Winston Churchill had the bright idea of presenting it to the Americans - without consulting the cathedral. The manuscript stayed in the States until after the war, but Lincoln then managed to retrieve it.

"It was an extraordinarily powerful document in its day and since. There are records of it being waved to assert rights in York within 10 years of its creation," Doherty said.

"It has had an extraordinary afterlife, particularly in the United States where in the War of Independence it seemed to chime with the assertion of rights against George III, in the 19th century when it was cited by Abraham Lincoln among many others, and on into the 20th century."

The New York Times reports that Rubenstein intends for his copy to go back on display in the National Archives in Washington, DC.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Bible According To Henry VIII

Arthur Freeman, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, describes a rare portable-sized Vulgate Bible published in London in 1535. It contains selected portions of the Latin Old Testament along with the entire New Testament. But the preface, though unsigned, indicates that the editor was Henry VIII himself.

Freeman's speculations about what led Henry to sponsor the publication and then, in turn, abandon the project include interesting observations about the political pros-and-cons of Bible publishing in the 16th century.

Given whatever doctrinal or theological thrust such editorial choices suggest, can we adduce any special purposes in the publication of Henry’s bible, beyond those he states, of fulfilling an obligation to God and serving “the necessity of the people”? Was it really directed to a popular readership, or was it more in the nature of a ceremonial performance? Ordinary “people”, after all, could rarely manage Latin, and those who could, would probably have preferred – like Henry’s scrupulous reader – a complete bible, which, if they could afford Henry’s, they no doubt already possessed. Here a few bibliographical observations may be helpful.

The volume is, to begin with, conspicuously rare: it now survives in only four complete copies, and three slightly imperfect ones, none of which bears any sign of ceremonial presentation, that is, a lavish contemporary binding or sententious inscription. Apparently it was never reprinted, ...

... perhaps the forthcoming availability of the complete scriptures in reader-friendly vernacular English left Henry’s and Berthelet’s curious Vulgate – still the “first” bible printed in England, no mean distinction – something of an anachronism, or throwback, and accounts for its virtual demise both in practical use and in (modern) historical memory. Another possibility, also linked to its date of appearance, is more prosaic, but evocative: July 1535 was not exactly a serene month in the religio-political history of the English monarchy and Church. Bishop John Fisher had been beheaded at Tower Hill on June 22, to the indignation of nearly all Europe, a furore compounded by the perfunctory trial of Sir Thomas More, who followed Fisher to the block on July 6. Henry had escaped the latter occasion with a long summer progress through the West Country. But in the light of impending reaction from the rest of the Christian world, including papal excommunication itself in August, the appearance of a somewhat self-congratulatory “personal” canon of scriptural law, via an eccentric edition of the Vulgate, might have seemed grotesquely ill-timed.

(Thanks to PhiloBiblos for the tip.)

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Death of a Book (Store)

For those interested in the deaths of books--or maybe suicide ...



(Thanks for the tip to Michael Lieberman at BookPatrol.)

Scrolls of Alexandrian Synagogue

A slide show on YouTube depicts the many scrolls of various sizes in the ark of the Hanabi Synagogue in Alexandria, Egypt. It was produced as part of a series of slide shows about the synagogues and Jewish cemetaries in the city.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Magna Carta Auction coming

As I reported previously, the 13th century copy of the Magna Carta displayed until this year in the U.S. National Archives will be auctioned by Sotheby's on December 18th. As the sale approaches, Sotheby's rhetoric is ratcheting up: according to the Associate Press, vice chairman David Redden calls it "the most important document in the world. ... It is a document to learn from, and also a symbol, an icon, a holy grail -- all of those. It is one of those touchstones of culture." They expect it to sell for $20-30 million.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Sanctifying Power of Texts

The power of texts to sanctify buildings is admirably summed up by this Indystar headline: "It isn't synagogue without the Torah." The story describes ritual transfer of torah scrolls when an Indianapolis synagogue moved to a new site.

A building is not actually a synagogue, says Rabbi Arnold Bienstock, unless it contains the Torah scrolls. "According to Jewish law, when the Torah scrolls are removed and taken out of the synagogue, the synagogue loses its holiness," Bienstock said. "What really defines the synagogue per se, and what defines Judaism, is the Torah."

... Some congregants wanted to walk the scrolls to their new home, as is custom, but the distance and the perils of December weather led planners to opt for a bus transfer. Even so, each scroll, containing a complete Torah, will be carried individually on the journey.

Texts convey such sanctifying power in Sikhism, Ethiopian Christianity and many branches of Buddhism. In the Christian and Buddhist contexts, texts and relics function in exactly the same way as loci of holiness. Studies of the religious significance and function of relics therefore hold out great promise for understanding the power of iconic texts.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Marketing Relic Texts

In contrast to the Israeli scholars trying to gather the fragments of the Aleppo Codex from private owners, others happily cater to would-be owners of iconic texts. A company in Los Angeles called Spiritual Artifacts sells fragments of Torah scrolls. "The fragments are hundreds of years old and lovingly framed and preserved in our specially made and hand crafted conservation frames. You can also personalize your antique piece with a dedication plaque to commemorate any occasion." Co-owner Sam Gliksman echoed the rhetoric of scholarship and museum collectors when he said to Webwire, “These fragments have survived for centuries and represent a valuable part of Jewish history. We need to preserve them for future generations.”

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Book Architecture

The images of giant book spines have turned the facade of a Kansas City library car park into a giant book shelf. (Thanks to Jeremy for the tip about deputydog's coverage, who also shows pictures of a temporary construction wall in bookshelf form in Cardiff, Wales.)

Ethiopian Decalogue Tablets

Paul Raffaele, in the Smithsonian, describes his hunt for Israel's Ark of the Covenant that Ethiopian Christians claim to be keeping in a monastery at Aksum. That story has, of course, been told many times before. But along the way, he describes the iconic role of tablets of the Ten Commandments in Ethiopian churches and rituals:

The tabots (pronounced "TA-bots") are replicas of the tablets in the ark, and every church in Ethiopia has a set, kept in its own holy of holies. "It's the tabots that consecrate a church, and without them it's as holy as a donkey's stable," Abba Gebre said. Every January 19, on Timkat, or the Feast of the Epiphany, the tabots from churches all over Ethiopia are paraded through the streets.

... A dozen priests, deacons and acolytes—clad in brocade robes in maroon, ivory, gold and blue—joined him to form a protective huddle around a bearded priest wearing a scarlet robe and a golden turban. On his head the priest carried the tabots, wrapped in ebony velvet embroidered in gold. Catching sight of the sacred bundle, hundreds of women in the crowd began ululating—making a singsong wail with their tongues—as many Ethiopian women do at moments of intense emotion.

As the clerics began to walk down a rocky pathway toward a piazza at the center of town (a legacy of Italy's occupation of Ethiopia in the 1930s), they were hemmed in by perhaps 1,000 more chanting and ululating devotees. At the piazza, the procession joined clerics carrying tabots from seven other churches. Together they set off farther downhill, with the trailing throng swelling into the thousands, with thousands more lining the road. About five miles later, the priests stopped beside a pool of murky water in a park.

All afternoon and through the night, the priests chanted hymns before the tabots, surrounded by worshipers. Then, prompted by glimmers of light sneaking into the morning sky, Archbishop Andreas led the clerics to celebrate the baptism of Jesus by playfully splashing one another with the pool's water.

The Timkat celebrations were to continue for three more days with prayers and masses, after which the tabots would be returned to the churches where they were kept.

Among many interesting things in this account is the claim that churches are sanctified only by the presence of tabots . Here a very iconic text legitimizes that most religious kind of ethos, holiness.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

"Divinely Inspired Constitution"

Americans have a long history of revering their Constitution. Such veneration is particularly strong among politically active Evangelicals of the so-called "religious right," some of whose leaders have termed the U.S. founding documents "the most wonderful instrument ever drawn by the hand of man" (echoing Justice William Johnson in 1823). But Ron Paul, U.S. Representative and Republican presidential candidate, takes this one step further in his "Statement of Faith", which in the second-to-the-last paragraph reads:

" I am running for president to restore the rule of law and to stand up for our divinely inspired Constitution."

Christian bloggers have already castigated Ron Paul as heretical for this statement (see Parableman and evangelical outpost, with Paul's clarification in comment 78). I think it rather represents a logical outcome of efforts to elevate the iconicity of the U.S. Constitution which has, in turn, fueled reactions to portray the Christian Bible as supreme (e.g. with Ten Commandments monuments). Though theologians would like to believe otherwise, practices generate beliefs as often as the reverse. Monuments and shrines to national texts will generate beliefs in their supernatural origins.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Manga Bible

Putting a different twist on the "iconic" dimension of Bibles, Tyndale House Publishers has announced the release of a New Testament in Manga-comic format titled Manga Messiah. The summary claims:

This authentic, cutting-edge art style is combined with fast-paced storytelling to deliver biblical truths to an ever-changing culture that is often a challenge to penetrate. This is genuine Japanese manga style, unlike other Christian "manga" books in the marketplace.

(Thanks to Meg for this tip.)

Monday, November 19, 2007

Scriptures As Artifacts at SBL meeting

The Iconic Books Project is not the only research effort on this subject. The Scripture as Artifact Consultation, chaired by Brian Malley, showcased the work of eleven scholars at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in San Diego.

The session on Saturday, November 17th, focused on “the late medieval period to the present.”
     Marianne Schleicher (Aarhus University) described her research on the relationship between ritual uses and displays of Torah scrolls and the interpretation of Torah in a Dutch Jewish congregation (paper title: “Transitions between Artifactual and Hermeneutical Use of Scripture”).
     Miriam Levering (U. Tennessee, Knoxville) surveyed artifactual/iconic uses of texts in Buddhist traditions before focusing in particular on Zen schools. She noted the irony that medieval Zen traditions generally downplayed the role of scriptures in comparison with other Buddhist schools, but then proceeded to produce a flood of texts that seem to function as scriptures nevertheless (paper title: “Scripture as Artifact: A Comparative Perspective”).
     Unfortunately, I had to miss the remaining papers in Saturday’s session. They were “Curbing Phantasm: The Bible Moralisée” by Eva Maria Raepple (College of DuPage), “The Danish Hymnbook: Artifact and Text” by Kirsten Nielsen (Aarhus University), and “Some Biblical Artifacts in Search of a Sociological Theory” by David Chalcraft (University of Derby). [But see Dori's comment below for a summary of these last two papers.]

Though the session on Sunday, November 18th, focused on “the ancient and early medieval world,” Brian Malley began with a theoretical paper on the relationship between the artifactual use and semantic meaning of scriptures. Starting with a standard model in communications theory, he argued that artifactual uses, rather than being a small and insignificant aspect of scriptural usage, actually impact virtually all uses of the text (paper title: “Text, Artifact and Meanings”).
     The next four papers all described various kinds of ancient evidence for the artifactual uses of scriptural texts. Larry Hurtado (University of Edinburgh) presented the manuscript evidence for the distinctive forms and uses of early Christian scriptures (2nd-3rd centuries C.E.). Christians’ preference for binding their scriptures (OT and NT) in codex (book) form, rather than as scrolls, their use of distinctive abbreviations (nomina sacra) for the names and titles of God and Jesus, and their employment of reader’s aids in manuscripts intended for public reading all distinguish their material culture from its Greco-Roman context (paper title: “Early Christian Manuscripts of Biblical Texts as Artifacts”).
     Stephen Reed (Jamestown College) surveyed the contents and textual form of the Dead Sea Scroll texts used for ancient Jewish phylacteries (tefillin) and mezuzot. He noted that they differ from other biblical scrolls from Qumran not only in their contents ( fairly standardized excerpts from Exodus and Deuteronomy) but also in the condition of their materials (the texts in tefillin were often written on tattered scraps of leather) and their very small, run-together letters that show they were clearly not meant to be read but manipulated ritually (paper title: “Physical and Visual Features of Dead Sea Scriptural Texts”).
     Eduard Iricinschi (Princeton University) described the heavy use and dependence of the ancient Manicheans on the texts written by their founder Mani/Manus. Their texts served to spread the faith rapidly in the Sassanian and Roman empires of the third century and following, but also became a principal target of imperial efforts (in the long run, successful) to suppress the religion (paper title: “ ‘A Thousand Books will be Saved’: Manichean Manuscripts and Religious Propaganda in the Roman Empire”).
     Thomas J. Kraus (Willibald Gluck Gymnasium) investigated the nature and function of Byzantine armbands with medallions that cite the opening verse of Psalm 91 (Ps 90 in the Greek translation) along with others depicting the Madonna and child. He charted the popularity of the talismanic use of Greek Ps 90 in Byzantine Christian culture to explain its prominence in cryptic form on these artifacts (paper title: “ ‘He that Dwelleth in the Help of the Highest’: Septuagint Psalm 90 and the Iconographic Program on Byzantine Armbands”).
     Dori Parmenter (Syracuse University, co-director of the Iconic Books Project) concluded the session with a broader survey of myths of heavenly books and their impact on early and medieval Christian beliefs. She demonstrated that Christians were influenced by ancient Near Eastern and, especially, Jewish ideas of pre-existent heavenly scriptures and “books of life,” but they conceived the heavenly equivalent of Gospel books to be Christ himself as the Word of God. This equivalence between book and Christ appears prominently in ancient and medieval Christian art and provides the ideological underpinning for the liturgical reverence shown Gospel books (paper title: “The Bible as Icon: Myths of the Divine Origins of Scripture”).

Monday, November 12, 2007

Congregation Writes Torah


Fascinating story by Glen Collins in the NYT about the ritual of Torah-writing, only this time, a synagogue's ark will house a Torah written by members of its very own congregation, the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan.

"In a single stroke, those who join in the ambitious project are both honoring tradition and testing its bounds. Typically, the writing of a Torah has been left to a highly trained sofer, collaborating perhaps with a chosen few in the temple. For many centuries, the process has been a journey into an arcane and proscribed world of recondite rules and spiritual imperatives that are a mystery even to many devout Jews."

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Car Customized for a Qur'an

A common aspect of iconic books is that they warrant special handling and storage. The Malaysian car manufacturer Proton has just that in mind in the design of a new car aimed at a Muslim market:
Malaysia firm's 'Muslim car' plan

[. . .]

The car could boast special features like a compass pointing to Mecca and a dedicated space to keep a copy of the Koran and a headscarf.

[. . .]

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Aleppo Codex as Talisman

A report in today's Haaretz illustrates why experts in scriptures' textual dimension (that is, scholars) frequently find veneration of its iconic dimension more than a little problematic:

An eight-centimeter-square piece of the 1087-year-old Aleppo Codex will be given to a representative of the Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem on Thursday, following 18 years during which Israeli scholars tried to retrieve it from businessman Sam Sabbagh.

Sabbagh salvaged the fragment from a burning synagogue in Aleppo, Syria in 1947.

Inscribed on both sides, it is one of the lost fragments of the codex, a copy of the Bible written in 920 C.E. in Tiberias by the scribe Shlomo Ben Buya'a. The fragment Sabbagh had bears verses of Exodus chapter 8, including the words of Moses to Pharaoh: "Let my people go, that they may serve me..."

Sabbagh believed the small piece of parchment was his good luck charm for six decades. He was convinced that thanks to the parchment, which he kept with him always in a transparent plastic container, he had been saved from riots in his hometown of Aleppo during Israel's War of Independence, and he had managed to immigrate from Syria to the United States in 1968 and start a new life in Brooklyn and make a living. The charm was with him when he underwent complicated surgery.

Just two years ago, it completed its task, when Sabbagh passed away.

Of course, the scholars' interest is not just textual, since this fragment is very unlikely to influence anyone's interpretation of Exodus 8. The value to scholars in the codex's reunification derives from, among other things, the public reinforcement of the view that texts are best kept intact. This position serves the purposes of contextual interpretation of semantic meaning, of course, but it also concentrates the legitimacy conveyed by their iconic status in the one person or institution that owns them and can display them. Fragmentation of texts for talismanic purposes serves conversely to distribute more broadly their iconic prestige.

December 3, 2007: Now Haaretz reports that:

Scholars at Yad Ben-Zvi research institute in Jerusalem have called on Jews around the world who originally come from Aleppo, Syria and may possess fragments of the ancient Aleppo Codex to turn them over to Israel.

... "This is the No. 1 asset of the Jewish people," Dr. Zvi Zameret, head of Yad Ben-Zvi said, "and I believe the Jewish people would do a great deal to have it back."

This last quotation illustrates perfectly a typical conflict over iconic texts which pits the interests of a reified collective (in this case, "the Jewish people") represented by scholars against the interests of individuals (the Jews from Aleppo). For the collective, the iconic text serves purposes of legitimation ("the No. 1 asset of the Jewish people"). For individuals, a scrap of text provide a sense of prestige or empowerment (the "good luck charm" of the previous story).


September 27, 2008: The Associated Press picks up the story. Again, note the clear distinction and very different value judgments made on individual interests vis-a-vis the collective's interests:
Some people might be superstitious about the fragments they hold, or believe they are rightfully the property of Aleppo Jews, not of scholars. Others might simply have no idea of the value of what they own. ...

The manuscript doesn't contain passages missing from other versions. Instead, its accuracy is a matter of details like vowel signs and single letters that would only slightly alter pronunciation. But Judaism sanctifies each tiny calligraphic flourish in the Bible as a way of ensuring that communities around the world use precisely the same version of the divine book. That's why the Codex is considered by some to be the most important Jewish text in existence, and why the missing pieces are so coveted.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Lavish Books about Lavish Festivals

Celebrating Italian Festivals" is an exhibit of Italian books at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University Republican American reported on an interview with the curator, Robert G. Babcock:
They were political documents, lavish self-promotional billboards aimed at asserting the wealth and stature of the host.

... Printing became available in the 15th century and within 100 years, the royal and aristocratic courts behind Europe's most illustrious festivals printed elaborate, illustrated volumes to record these celebrations. "This was not just a souvenir, but a propaganda item," said Babcock. "The ruler of the other states needed to know that the duke of Tuscany's daughter married a Hapsburg prince to show all the other rulers that they were important, they were wealthy and they do great things for their people."

... The books themselves vary in their level of documentation. Many, like a 17th century festival for Santa Rosalia, patron saint of Palermo, feature folded-out engravings of the ceremonies along with painstaking citations of who was there. The most breathtaking example here is a 19th century volume commemorating the Roman feast of Corpus Christi. It includes a single color illustration that, unfolded, is more than 38 feet long. Each of the thousands of participants of the procession, including Pope Gregory XVI, is identified.

The exhibit continues through January 9th. (Thanks to Rare Book News for this tip!)

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Sikh battles over publishing and transporting Guru Granth

Previously reported conflicts among Sikhs in Punjab over the publication, transportation, and sale of copies of the Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth, have now evolved into a tug-of-war between major leaders in Punjab and in Delhi, according to an unsympathetic account in World Sikh News:
For something which should have been handled very delicately and discretely, the SGPC has made a mess of the entire affair. ...

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Bibles as Foundation Deposits

(From the files of the Iconic Books Project) The Houston Chronicle reported on August 7, 2005 that Possibility Custom Homes, builders in the Houston area, bury Bibles in the concrete foundations of the homes they build:
... Building homes with a Bible in the foundation is not something they advertise, but it's not something they hide, either.
"The Bible symbolizes the godly principles we use in our company," Wallace said. "We felt that if we built our company on a godly foundation, God would bless our company."
"We do it more for us than anything else," Eckert said.
Besides the Bible, brief Scripture passages, appropriate for the individual room, get printed on the wood framework of those rooms. A passage about children, for example, is printed with permanent marker on the wall studs of a room intended for kids. On the door frame of another house is the opening verse of Psalm 127, which refers to God establishing houses, or families.
"It's nice for me to have a reminder in there when I'm walking through the frame of where my principles are," Eckert said. "It keeps me straight."
... At least one other company, however, has been doing something similar with the Bible for at least a dozen years in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
... On the day the foundation is poured at Possibility Homes , a soft-covered Bible is placed at the outside corner of the master bedroom - "where the spiritual leaders of the house stay," according to Eckert - or somewhere else if the buyer prefers.
The book is open to the center, the concrete is poured from a huge boom connected to a truck. Workers then smooth the area along with the rest of the foundation.
Textual foundation deposits were common in antiquity, but I have not run across other examples of using scriptures in this way more recently. Does anyone know of other examples?

Monday, October 29, 2007

Robot Scribe

A German group, Robotlab, has constructed this robotic arm that does calligraphy. (Thanks to Michael Lieberman for this tip.) In this display, it is "hand" writing the Luther Bible. Note the use of THE iconic German Bible for purposes of this demonstration.

One commenter notes the irony in choosing this text to render mechanically in imitation calligraphy when it was originally printed. Another irony is the choice of the scroll form for the convenience of the machine, instead of the codex sheets more easily handled by printing presses.

Advocates of the possibilities inherent in new electronic media (such as the folks at if:book) often decry the wide-spread tendency to use new technology anachronistically, rather than taking advantages of its possibilities. They would probably not be comforted by the observation that this tendency is very old. This robot reproduces calligraphy because, despite five-and-a-half centuries of printing, careful hand calligraphy retains connotations of prestige and expense. Thus famous documents, like the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution, are displayed and reproduced in calligraphic form, which is how they are popularly remembered, despite the fact that the originals were printed broadsheets. It was the secondary, anachronistic hand-written form that was given iconic status.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

"The Man With the Bible" in the NYT


A recent New York Times article demonstrates one of the most common iconic uses of a Bible in visual or descriptive media: the Bible serves as the distinguishing feature marking its holder as a Christian or a preacher. The headline, accompanying photograph, and second paragraph of "Rocking the Boat: The Man With the Bible" all foreground the Bible as the trait that setting Michael Nwadiuko apart from the other passengers on the Spirit of America ferry:
Rocking the Boat: The Man With the Bible

AS the Spirit of America’s engines sputtered to life early last Tuesday and the ferry began its trip from Staten Island to Lower Manhattan, Michael Nwadiuko strode purposefully toward the back of the main deck, where groggy commuters read the morning paper and nursed cups of coffee.

In his navy suit and gray tie, Mr. Nwadiuko looked as if he were headed to a job on Wall Street. Only the Bible in one hand revealed his more spiritual aspirations.

[. . .]
The use of the Bible as the marker of identity is curious in this introduction, as the rest of the article examines another way in which Mr. Nwadiuko reveals his "more spiritual aspirations" as it discusses his (often unwelcome) preaching to the other passengers. The article is not about a man "with" a Bible or "only the Bible in one hand" as much as it is about a man talking to other passengers, yet the author and photographer have made choices to signal Mr. Nwadiuko's identity primarily with his Bible.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Oklahoma politicians return gift of Qur'an

According to the Associated Press:
Two dozen Oklahoma lawmakers plan to return copies of the Quran to a state panel on diversity after a lawmaker claimed the Muslim holy book condones the killing of innocent people.

The books were given to Oklahoma's 149 senators and representatives by the Governor's Ethnic American Advisory Council.

The lawmakers' intention to return the Qur'ans led to their denunciation by the Jewish Federation of Tulsa and several local interfaith groups, as well as the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Like other public arguments involving American politicians and Qur'ans in recent years, this debate shows how much attention public officials pay (even if clumsily, as in this case) to the iconic functions of scriptures--far more than do most scholars of those scriptures and religions.

November 10, 2007: The Tulsa World now reports that both the lawmakers and the Ethnic American Advisory Council have been surprised by the worldwide press attention to this story. So the politicians underestimated the iconic function of scriptures, too.  This is yet another example of why serious analysis of the phenomenon of iconic texts is needed.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Problems at Library of Congress


This picture is of the stacks of the U.S. Library of Congress in Washington, suffering from staff shortages and budget cuts according to a new Inspector General's survey that has prompted outraged headlines in the Washington Post and on Book Patrol.

This blog notes lavish attention to particular books and in particular places, but we should give some notice to the lack of care for books in institutions from which we have every reason to expect better.

Update, November 2, 2007: Matt Raymond has responded on behalf of the Library of Congress on its own blog.  For more reactions, see Book Patrol and PhiloBiblos.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Million Pound Qur'an


In addition to enormous artistic and religious value, some books also have enormous economic value, such as the 13th century Qur'an which sold for millions of your preferred currency at an auction at Christie's:

LONDON (AFP) - A 13th century Koran was sold on Tuesday for a world record price of 1,140,500 pounds (2,320,917 dollars, 1,632,055 euros), auction house Christie's said.

[. . .]

Dated to 1203 and written entirely in gold, with marginal notes in silver, it is the earliest known complete, dated Koran, written in gold in the world, and broke the record for a Koran, and the record for any Islamic manuscript, sold at auction.

[. . .]

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Hitler's Honors

Salt Lake City police have recovered stolen memorabilia that once belonged to Adolf Hitler, including several elaborate documents lavishing honors on him (see the photo gallery). From an Iconic Books perspective, the wooden box in which they were stored (best seen in the news clip from Spiegel TV) is as revealing as the documents themselves for emphasizing the value that was placed on these paper items. (Thanks to my colleague, Albrecht Diem, for bringing this news to my attention.)

Friday, October 19, 2007

Making do with the Fetish

The Iconic Books Symposium continues with sessions in Graham Commons of Bird Library throughout the day, culminating in the keynote address by Vincent Wimbush, “Making Do With the Fetish: Scriptures and Vernaculars.” The symposium sessions continue tomorrow (9-5) and concludes with an "Iconic Books Film Festival" from 7-9 pm in Crouse Hinds 010.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Images to be Read and Words to be Seen

Iconic Books: The Ray Smith Symposium in the Humanities at Syracuse University starts this evening with Michelle Brown's keynote address, “Images to be Read and Words to be Seen: the Iconic Role of the Early Medieval Book,” in 500 Hall of Languages at 7 p.m.

Available here is the program for the whole Symposium as well as a news release about it.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Chinese text & book art

Book Art has come a long way: The July/August edition of the Atlantic dubbed Xu Bing’s “The Book From the Sky” (1987-1991) “one of the most important works of 20th-century Chinese Art." For a better image of his installation, see the online slide show, “Visionaries from the New China,” which ends with another of Bing’s word/book pieces, “The Living Word” (2001). (Thanks to my colleague, Sam Gorovitz, for pointing out this article.)

(October 23) Michael Lieberman on Book Patrol calls attention to an exhibit of many pieces by Chinese artists featuring books at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. The catalog of the exhibit, Shu: Reinventing Books in Contemporary Chinese Art, claims that "in Chinese Contemporary Art there are few objects as important as the book."

(2014: See Zak Braiterman's reaction to the Met's display of Bing's installation.)

Friday, October 12, 2007

Prince Harry Sculpture

American sculptor Daniel Edwards, known for his controversial works depicting Britney Spears giving birth and Paris Hilton undergoing an autopsy, includes a Bible in his latest sculpture. Iraq War Memorial: Death of Prince Harry depicts the prince with his head resting on a Bible. The iconic value of the book is strong here, as this is a Bible that cannot be opened, read, studied, or performed, but it is poignantly associated with death and political commentary.


I am curious about the ritual this artist is portraying, and I would appreciate comments on it. Plutarch mentions that Alexander the Great kept a copy of the Iliad beneath his bed when he was on campaign, so there is a long precedent for keeping one's favorite text nearby, but I'd like to know if this is done in funeral or burial rituals. Does any funeral practice (past or present, any culture) really include using scripture in this manner or is this an artistic trope?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Joy of Leather Bibles


For sheer celebration of the materiality of leather-bound Bibles, I've found little that can compare with the Bible Design & Binding blog by J. Mark Bertrand, who revels in limp goatskin bindings, crisp red lettering, and wide margins. He publicizes future releases of new bindings and evaluates the relative benefits of binding construction. Others' comments on his posts echo his enthusiasm and show that he is hardly unique.

A Toddler's Torah Set

Recognizing scripture as iconic is a mode of perception that one learns. In some cases (such as with a three-year old I know), that learning can occur through an activity like "Pat the Bible." It can be quite effective: even before he could read, the three-year old could distinguish a Bible (or Book of Common Prayer) from other books on the basis of its appearance alone.

Another way to develop one's sense of scripture-as-icon is through play, which in this case is facilitated by KidKraft's Torah Set.

The sales pitch promises all kinds of educational religious fun:
Fun and nurturing Jewish values come together in KidKraft's brightly colored Torah set. Perfect for children 3 and up and great for pretend play, kids can spend hours playing with their very own Torah set, including:

* A colorful wooden Ahron Kodesh to keep the Torahs safe
* 2 navy blue plush curtains that open and close, finished with the Star of David
* 2 plush, roll-up Torahs finished in corresponding colors of red and blue

Monday, October 8, 2007

Artistic Giant Quran


The Tehran Times reports that a giant "work of art, in the form of an open Quran, was made by 30 artists from Isfahan." The open pages measure 3 x 4 meters. The piece was created for display at this month's 15th International Holy Quran exhibit in Tehran.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Trouble over publishing Guru Granth in Punjab

Unrest has broken out in Punjab prompted by a Sikh central committee's attempt (see previous post) to monopolize publication and distribution of the Guru Granth. The Tribune of Chandigarh (India) reports:
In a bizarre incident, agitated activists of the Guru Granth Sahib Satkar Committee picked up two brothers from the shop of famous publishers Jeewan Singh Chattar Singh and Sons, near Golden Temple, and blackened their faces in full public view.

The brothers are accused of selling 50 “birs” of Guru Granth Sahib to a Delhi-based Sikh couple. The activists of the committee followed the vehicle of the couple Surinder Singh and his wife up to Beas. They intercepted them and compelled them to return to Amritsar. The agitating Sikh activists alleged that the birs were stacked in the Delhi couple’s vehicle and they were wearing shoes. It is alleged that the couple wanted to sell the birs at a high price. It is alleged that both brothers were first beaten up in full public view and then in the room of Akal Takht. The heavy police force that reached the incident site could not intervene because of the surcharged religious sentiments.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Pretty Bible


Hodder & Staughton will soon publish a Bible with this creative cover art (pointed out by Fade Theory). The design firm, CRUSH, described the assignment: "The intended market was people who do not already own a Bible, and most likely not card-carrying Christians, but those who might be inspired by the challenge that they ought to own a copy. The cover was to be something beautiful in its own right, unique and desirable."

Here in a nutshell is the essence of an iconic book: made beautiful to stimulate the desire to possess it to gain legitimacy ("they ought to own a copy"). Note that nothing is said about reading it ...

Magna Carta for sale

Sotheby's plans to auction a 1297 copy of the Magna Carta in December (thanks to PhiloBiblos for pointing out the New York Times article). This copy, one of only 17 from the 13th century and the only one outside Britain and Australia, was until last week on display in an alcove of the Rotunda of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. (pictured above, 2006). The Ross Perot Foundation which owns the document suddenly decided to put it up for sale. "Its departure came so suddenly that the archives did not have time to remodel the display case or fill it with some of the nine billion documents from the archives’ own collection." Sotheby's is advertising the sale as "the most important document ever offered at auction" and expects it to sell for $20-30 million.

Given the iconic importance of the Magna Carta (see my previous post) to American rhetoric about antecedents to the U.S. Constitution, I expect there will be considerable effort, perhaps political as well as financial, to keep it in the country and on public display. Stay tuned ...

Monday, September 24, 2007

Iconic First Amendment at Syracuse University


My employer, Syracuse University, has just built a monumental iconic text into its new building for the Newhouse School of Public Communication. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution wraps around three sides of the building in huge letters etched into glass, with especially large letters for the words, "freedom of speech" and "press," as one would expect on a journalism school. The glass enclosed floors above the phrase are mottled in an alternately dark-light design reminiscent of newsprint.

Putting parts or all of the U.S. Constitution in monumental form seems to be a growing trend (for another examples, see the entire text etched in glass at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, which opened in 2003). There is even a movement to put monuments to the Bill of Rights (the first Ten Amendments to the U.S. Constitution) on the grounds of all state capitals. The Statesman reports that Arizona approved such a monument in 2006. Texas has done so this year (2007).

In a 2004 article, I compared the movement to defend and promote monuments of the Ten Commandments with the movement to iconicly enshrine the Constitution. I suggested that the debate over the former was, in part, fueled by the latter and involved a struggle over "how to symbolize their relative position and status." That remains the case.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Devil's Bible exhibited in Prague


The 13th-century "Devil's Bible," tauted as the world's largest medieval manuscript, has gone on display in Prague. AFP reports: "The 13th century masterpiece, considered at the time as the eighth wonder of the world, was carried off as booty by Swedish troops from Prague during the Thirty Years' War but has returned at the end of painstaking negotiations and preparations between Prague and Stockholm." The 624-page, 75-kilogramme (165-pound) Bible "owes its name to a superb illustration of the devil found inside."

The status of valuable books as cultural relics is nowhere more evident than in the fact that moving them across national boundaries often requires state diplomacy. See previous posts on the Wardington Hours.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Price of Iconicity

Today's NY Times has a story about a 177-year-old first edition copy of the Book of Mormon that sold for $105,600.00 at an auction in upstate New York. It took all of six minutes for the auction to close, with an unidentified man from the East Coast making the winning bid.

Clearly one man's junk is another's icon. The book was discovered in the attic of an elderly man about to enter a nursing home just outside of Palmyra, NY, the birthplace of Mormonism. It is a striking contrast, where an iconic book was relegated to an attic in a region recognized by Mormons as a site of revelation and ultimately sold at an exorbitant price.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Heart Sutra on Pillars


A new installation of monumental scriptural texts has appeared in the last few years in Hong Kong. David Killick reports in the New Zealand Press that at the monastery in Ngong Ping Village is "the Wisdom Path, which opened in 2005. A winding trail leads past the monastery to 38 timber columns, built on the side of the mountain, their tops disappearing eerily into the mist.

"All but one of them are inscribed with sections of the 260-word Heart Sutra prayer. The highest column is blank, symbolising "emptiness" (Sunyata).

"Artist and scholar Professor Jao Tsung-I completed his calligraphy of the Heart Sutra in 2002, and dedicated it to the people of Hong Kong."

Monday, September 17, 2007

Happy Constitution Day!

Today is "Constitution Day" in the United States. Starting in 1997, Constitution Day Inc. (founded by Louise Leigh) led the effort to have September 17th, the anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787, recognized and celebrated. Recommended activities include having "school children, the military overseas and Governors or their representatives from every state reciting the preamble simultaneously." In 2004, the U.S. Congress designated Sep 17th "Constitution Day." This year's recital of the Preamble will be led by General Colin Powell at 2 p.m. EST.

Other interested organizations are commemorating the day differently. The U.S. National Archives, which displays the Constitution in its rotunda, invited families yesterday to add their signature to those on the Constitution (an activity available year-round at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia; see above photo (c) Iconic Books Project, 2005). This evening, it will host a panel discussion of racial equality in American History. CQ Press focuses on education in the classroom by offering curriculum guides for Constitution Day.

All three dimensions of the U.S. Constitution--textual, performative, and iconic--are being ritualized somewhere today.

More Beautiful Libraries


Sol Gaitan on if:book writes an interesting commentary on the exhibit of Candida Höfer's photographs at the Sonnabend Gallery. He notes that Höfer's photographs of Portuguese libraries create:
that feeling of "temple of learning" with which libraries have often been identified. On the other hand, the meticulous attention to detail, hand-painted porcelain markers, ornately carved bookcases, murals, stained glass windows, gilt moldings, and precious tomes are an eloquent representation of libraries as palaces of learning for the privileged. In spite of that, and ever since libraries became public spaces, anyone, in theory, has access to books and the concept of gain or monetary value rarely enters the user's mind.

Libraries are a book lover's paradise, a physical compilation of human knowledge in all its labyrinthine intricacy. With digitization, libraries gain storage capacity and readers gain accessibility, but they lose both silence and awe. Even in the digital context, the basic concept of the library as a place for the preservation of memory remains, for many "enlightened" readers the realization that human memory and knowledge are handled by for-profit enterprises such as Google, produces a feeling of merchants in the temple, a sense that the public interest has fallen, one more time, into private hands.

Comparison with Curious Expeditions' collection photographs of libraries (see previous post) makes me, however, think less in terms of a public-private distinction than the sacred-secular one evoked by the phrase "temple of learning." The ornate decorations of these libraries resembles ecclesiastical architecture, and that holds true whether the library is truly private or governmental or academic or really public (e.g. the New York Public Library, the British Library reading room, the Carnegie academic and public libraries all over the U.S. built in neo-classical style, etc.). The architecture effectively conveys a feeling that books and the knowledge they contain are something "set apart," that is, sacred or holy. Google books, on the other hand, conveys nothing of that, to me at least. There are attempts, however, to give at least some iconic texts in electronic form a semblance of a such an aura (e.g. the British Library's "Turning the Pages" web displays, Bible's on DVD that reproduce codex images, etc.). I suspect such efforts will not only continue, but become stronger and more sophisticated as publishers of e-materials (both for-profit and non-profit, secular and sectarian) try to appropriate the iconicity of bound books for their electronic products.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Habit-forming reading


Though it's the opinion of this blog that books are already among the most iconic objects and images in very many cultures, a British publisher, TankBooks, is trying to sell books by making them in the shape and look of what is in their opinion an even more iconic object, the pack of cigarettes. Headlined "Tales to Take Your Breath Away," the publisher justifies this in iconic terms: "TankBooks pay homage to this monumentally successful piece of packaging design by employing it in the service of great literature. Cigarette packs are iconic objects, familiar, tried and tested, and over time TankBooks will become iconic objects in their own right." Inspired Marketing calls this move "truly inspired." Sales stats should show whether they're just blowing smoke ...

Friday, September 14, 2007

Iconic Books Symposium at Syracuse University

The Ray Smith Symposium on Iconic Books will take place October 18-20th at Syracuse University. Twelve scholars with specialties in diverse cultures and periods will gather to energize research on this important but neglected topic.

Anchoring the symposium will be two keynote addresses:
- “Images to be Read and Words to be Seen: the Iconic Role of the Early Medieval Book” by Prof. Michelle Brown (University of London, the British Library) on Thursday, October 18th at 7:00 p.m., and
- “Making Do With the Fetish: Scriptures and Vernaculars” by Prof. Vincent Wimbush (Claremont Graduate University, the Institute for Signifying Scriptures) on Friday, October 19th at 5 p.m.

During the day on the 19th and 20th, the invited scholars will take turns leading hour-long discussions about iconic books from the perspective of their own research and specialties. The symposium will conclude with a small film festival featuring a few short movies in which iconic texts play a central role.

For the list of invited participants, topics of discussion sections, and registration, housing, and travel information, see the link at left to "Symposium 2007." We hope to see you there!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Fla. Synagogue Offers Time-Share Torah


The Associate Press reports:
For a one-time gift of $1,800, members of Temple Israel [in Miami] can sponsor a section of the scroll. Each year, during the week before that section is read at Shabbat services, donors can keep the torah in their home — an event that has prompted families to host scripture studies, parades and dinner parties.

"When it's brought into a house, it makes the house more holy," said Rabbi Mitch Chefitz, who came up with the idea. "If the torah's in your room, then you have an honored guest."

... The torah was in need of cleaning and repair — to patch holes and fix lettering — so Chefitz came up with the time-share project.

About 40 of the 52 available weekly torah time-shares have been purchased at Temple Israel, a Reform synagogue. Other members have given $18 to sponsor a single letter of the scroll, and all five books have been sponsored for $18,000.

... When [Sandy] Grossman first had the scroll in her home last year, she had a gathering for friends and family. When the guests left, her 12-year-old daughter, Bari Pasternack, ran to the torah and kissed it. She read from it, and she took it to her bedroom with her and chanted prayers.

The mother watched. All her life, Grossman said, she never truly understood the torah. But that night, it came alive.

It's hard to imagine a better example of the iconic power of a Torah scroll.

Supplement (September 18th): This news has not gone down well with Rabbi Yossi Mandel of Everett, WA, who describes the ritual care with which Jewish scribes copy torah scrolls and decries this innovation: "There is no need to denigrate what is considered a sacred artifact in Judaism."

Black Book Art exhibit


The Minnesota Center for Book Arts has mounted what it claims is the first ever exhibit of book art by African American artists, according to Minnesota Public Radio. On display are the works of twenty-five artists. The exhibit, "We, Too, Are Book Artists," runs through Sept. 22.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Beautiful Libraries


Curious Expeditions has put together a remarkable collection of photographs of beautiful libraries. This picture of the Philosophical Hall of Strahov Monastery in Prague (Czech Republic) is only one of very many examples.

From an iconic books perspective, the collection illustrates vividly the close association between religious architecture and library architecture. Frequently, as in the case of the Strahov Monastery, they are one and the same thing.

Even, perhaps especially, secular universities often repeat the trope of the library as the "soul" of the university. Donors and architects have literalized that metaphor with library temples in stone, steel, wood and concrete. Elaborate libraries have thus become the ultimate reliquaries for that nearly universal icon of knowledge and wisdom, the book.

However, for a very different aesthetic of library design, see the winning concept for a new Czech national library. Thanks to Lu Terceiro for pointing out both items.

Victorian family bibles gaining popularity

Ken Gloss, owner of the Brattle Book Shop and appraiser of rare books, told the Boston Globe that "What might have been [a time when] most of these Bibles, you couldn't even move, now some of these big old Bibles people will buy to give as gifts to divinity students, priests retiring. . . . There [are] definitely more people interested in religion, the history of religion, religious books, [and] different religions."

Friday, September 7, 2007

Miniature Guru Granth

newKerala.com describes a miniature (1x1 inch) Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh scripture) in Agra, India. According to Kashmir Singh, the head cleric there, it "was specially made by the British for the convenience of Sikh soldiers during World War I, as they could not carry a normal sized book in the battlefield to pray. It was manufactured in Germany." The date and location can't both be right (Germans printing Sikh scripture for the British during WWI?), but I suppose the printing may have occurred in the years before 1914.

This account supports previous posts on this blog that suggested practical motives behind the production of miniatures. Do I remain skeptical only because my weak eyes, peering through prescription reading glasses, can't imagine anyone regularly reading such small print?

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Iconic Bible Music Video

From the files of the Iconic Book Project: A hilarious celebration and parody of the iconicity of the Bible in American evangelical culture first appeared on YouTube in 2004. It is Dan "Southpaw" Smith's rap music video, "Baby Got Book."

New Prayer Book for Reform Judaism

People often express stronger feelings about the congregational worship books that they use routinely, such as hymnals and prayer books, than they do about versions of scriptures. Though many lay people leave debates over the latter to professionals, they willingly voice strong opinions about any changes to the former. Thus the news that American Reform Judaism is introducing a new prayer book, Mishkan T'filah: A Reform Siddur, next month provides an opportunity to think about the emotions that become attached to familiar ritual books.

The NY Times article about it (thanks to my colleague, Gail Hamner, for pointing it out) provides a convenient summary of the history of Reform siddurs (prayer books) in America. The new siddur is notable for offering four versions of every prayer: in Hebrew or Aramaic, in English translation, a contemporary poetic equivalent and a theological interpretation. It also provides two short commentaries: one "historical or practical," the other "spiritual."

The new siddur has been under development for twenty years, so its appearance can hardly come as a surprise. It will be interesting, though, to see to what extent the different options it provides actually get used.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Sell Books by Threatening to Burn Them

Prospero's Books, a used book store with a staff of two in Kansas City, has hit on book burning as a marketing device. They give a high-minded goal, according owner Tom Wayne on KCTV Channel 5: "We hope to spark a conversation about the importance of books in the face of a marked shrinking in reading trends, and staggering waste streams of actual books." But the motive is to move an unwanted inventory of 20,000 volumes, as the store website admits.

I suppose it was only a matter of time before the uproars over desecrating scriptures--and the secular equivalent, abhorrence to burning any book--would be seized on as a marketing gimmick. The Rag & Bone Blog wonders "Is this such a bad thing?" Prospero's notes that books are routinely thrown away by the thousands by bookstores and libraries, not to mention the rest of us.

Prospero's is, of course, playing on the iconic status of books, which distinguishes them from most other disposable commodities. I wonder, though, if their campaign doesn't do more to show just how disposable books are than to motivate people to save them.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Book Art on Blogs


A blog by Lu Terceiro provides a recent series of posts on "book as art object" with pictures of book art installations culled from the WORK site, including this untitled piece by Job Koelewijn (2005).

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Bible in MP3

(Having more to do with the performance of scriptures than their iconicity ...) Iyov has compiled a remarkably long list of MP3 recordings of people reading the Bible in various English translations.

Instant relics: $1000+ coffee table books

Thanks to Rare Book News for pointing out this Wall Street Journal article which reports that an art book publisher has five new art books on its fall list priced in excess of $1,000. Leading the pack is Super Yacht, $3,950, with "an Italian-silk cover, protected by a clamshell Lucite case, and 648 color pages, which include rare photographs."

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Bulletproof Bible

One of the traits often attributed to the Bible is the ability to stop a bullet and save a soldier's life. An About.com Internet site documenting urban legends offers quotations reporting this legend at least as far back as 1841 (with one quotation claiming Oliver Cromwell knew about it!), and the latest war continues the tradition. According to a Buffalo, New York, television news broadcast, US Army PFC (Private First Class) Brendan Schweigart's Bible protected him from a ricocheting bullet:
It's the personal story of a Southern Tier soldier who can tell you the Word of God literally saved his life in Iraq! Army PFC Brendan Schweigart tells News 4's Ellen Maxwell how his personal bible stopped a bullet that would have killed him.

[. . .]

"They were cleaning the wound, you know, working on me, and then I for some reason just asked for my bible."

When the 22 year old was handed his bible, he realized the sniper's bullet had stopped there.

[. . .]
More skeptical readers might also be interested in Episode 16 of Season 2 of the cable television show Mythbusters, in which the hosts test the myth by seeing whether or not a book can stop a bullet. (For the most part, it can't.)

Friday, August 10, 2007

Troops Occupy Iraq's National Library

The Guardian reports that Iraqi troops have seized Iraq's national library to use its roof as a military outpost. The library director complains that "They have turned our national archive into a military target." The Guardian's lead line for this story announces that "Thousands of rare books and manuscripts in Iraq's national library and archive, one of the country's most important cultural institutions, are in peril." Jeremy Dibbell on Bibliophile editorializes: "The library building and grounds must be off-limits as a base for military operations, in order to prevent reprisal attacks on it and other cultural institutions."

Of interest from an iconic books perspective is the claim that important libraries and other cultural institutions, such as museums, should be off-limits to military activity. This reproduces in secular language the religious claim that military personnel stay out of shrines and other holy sites. Regard for libraries and museums as secular shrines is, of course, widespread in modern culture, even if recognition of the religious nature of this attitude is not.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Floating Book Fair / Exhibit / Mission

A ship containing a Christian books store calls on ports in Africa and Asia (see Doulos; a sister-ship sails Central and South American waters). Local press releases tout its scheduled stop this week in Chennai, India, as an "international Christian book fair." The merchandise includes
high-quality imported Indian Bibles in gilt edges, genuine leather bound, personalised versions in sizes, varying from large church editions to ultra small personal pocket Bibles. ... The Fair would also feature some exceptional Bibles like the largest, heaviest, smallest, waterproof, steel grip and personalised Bibles. ... In the personalised Bible, the reader's name appears 7000 times.
Other stories feature the floating store as "a floating book store for bibliophiles," "a book fair full of surprises," and "The Biggest Bible on display at Chennai Book Fair." A 2005 story in WikiNews about the ships emphasized that they bring books to people in regions otherwise without access to them.

Beyond the obvious use of iconicly crafted scriptures both as merchandise and as merchandizing display, the ships and the media coverage they willingly receive vividly illustrate how the interest in books in general, and scriptures in particular, reaches across cultural and religious boundaries. Iconic books have therefore always been useful tools for missionary work.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Timbuktu's Old Books (3)

Today's New York Times has a long article about Timbuktu's manuscript libraries. The story emphasizes the social and political stakes involved in the city's library project:
A surge of interest in ancient books, hidden for centuries in houses along Timbuktu’s dusty streets and in leather trunks in nomad camps, is raising hopes that Timbuktu — a city whose name has become a staccato synonym for nowhere — may once again claim a place at the intellectual heart of Africa. ...

Timbuktu’s new seekers [investors in the town and libraries] have a variety of motives. South Africa and Libya are vying for influence on the African stage, each promoting its vision of a resurgent Africa. Spain has direct links to some of the history stored here, while American charities began giving money after Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard professor of African studies, featured the manuscripts in a television documentary series in the late 1990s.
The feature includes an audio slide show and links to on online exhibit of Timbuktu manuscripts at the US Library of Congress.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Desecration as Protest

Previous posts have noted furor over desecrating scriptures in many countries, and the issue is again causing controversy in the USA. The arrest of a former Pace University student on hate-crime charges for throwing two Qur'ans in public toilets is generating charges of hypocrisy from many quarters, because similar acts by artists using Christian symbols have previously been defended on free-speech grounds (e.g. Hyscience, NY Post, Front Page; see the response from the Council on American-Islamic Relations).

Far less attention is being given to news that artist Charles Merrill burned a rare and valuable Qur'an. Earlier, he marked and cut up a Bible. He explained his attempt at even-handed desecrations of scriptures as symbolic acts of protest: "The purpose of editing and burning Abrahamic Holy Books is to eliminate homophobic hate."

As I observed in the case of the burning Bible on German TV, attention to descrations of one tradition's scriptures brings increased attention to similar acts in other traditions. The iconic status of a book is not static, but constantly changes. Iconic books provide convenient tools for both giving offense and taking offense, and today's politics gives many people reasons to do both. I expect that people's sensitivities to how their scriptures are being treated will keep rising for a while.

Attempt at Publishing Monopoly on Guru Granth

Sikh authorities in Rajasthan, India, are trying to get legislation passed that would grant legal monopolies for the printing of copies of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scriptures. This effort seeks to guard it from profanation or desecration, which has also been a recent tactic of intra-communal conflict (see Sikhs).

August 8th: The Punjab government announced to day that it would, in fact, "issue an ordinance banning the publication and publishing of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scripture, by private publishers," according to newKerala.com.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Brittle Book Syndrome on YouTube


Thanks to Bibliophile Bullpen for drawing attention to this YouTube video of bookbinder Peter Goodwin's describing "brittle book syndrome," with side comments about the advantages of books over electronic media...

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Calligraphy in decline?

Several new articles about religious calligraphy: An Iranian manuscript illuminator laments the decline of his art form because his contemporaries "prefer modern art to traditional work." I mentioned a similar complaint from a Indian calligrapher in a previous post. Two other articles show that some calligraphers still find patrons for hand-copied Qur'ans (Muslim scriptures) and Guru Granths (Sikh scriptures) in India and Canada. But both scribes' goal of writing the largest copy of their respective scriptures hints that calligraphic art alone is no longer enough either.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Monumental Qur'an: Checkpoint into Mecca

Since my query a few weeks ago concerning a Qur'an monument over a highway, I have finally found what I was looking for. In fact, this is the checkpoint into Mecca, on the road from Jeddah. Since Jeddah is the nearest major airport to the holy city of Mecca, most pilgrims to Mecca arriving by air would enter this way. It is the place where (male) pilgrims don their white garments for the hajj, and a state of ritual purity and equality begins. Non-Muslims are not permitted beyond this checkpoint into the sacred sites of Mecca.

I intend to investigate this monument more (when was this built? who designed it? what do other checkpoints look like?), and will update this post as I learn more, but if anyone else can contribute some information, please comment.

These photos are from the website virtualtourist.com. I am surprised that I haven't been able to find more pictures of this iconic book monument. While it is understandable that images from the sacred sites of Mecca might be limited, pictures of the Ka'ba other places are widely available.

Any ideas why this image is not more globally known?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Sutra Paintings & Accessories


The Korea Times reviews an exhibit at the National Museum of Korea titled "Sutra Painting: In Search of Buddhahood."

... The exhibition consists of two themes. The first highlights the Diamond Sutra Block made of gold found in Iksan Wanggung-ri pagoda, Buddhist reliquary as well as objects such as sutra case, sutra chest, and cloth for wrapping sutra.

The second offers the sutra paintings ranging from the period of Unified Silla (668-935) to the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) arranged chronologically to present an entire view of the distinguishing characteristics in accordance with its period and style. ...

The exhibit runs until September 16.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Giant Vietnamese Declarations of Independence


Thanh Nien News reports:
A calligraphy book in wood weighing over 300kg, thought to be the largest in Vietnam, titled Declaration of Independence, is on show in Hanoi.

The 2 m by 84 cm book was created in 21 days by Trinh Van Tuan from rare and durable kinds of wood and paper, and is a reproduction of three works considered national declarations of independence.

The first two documents included in this his new work of calligraphy date to 1077 and 1428 while the third was written by Ho Chi Minh "based on the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen to affirm the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam from France."

Monday, July 23, 2007

Koreana Tripitaka (2)

Yohan Yoo has provided me with the following links to background information on the huge collection of carved wooden printing blocks of the Buddhist scriptures called the Koreana Tritipaka, which I mentioned in a previous post. They emphasize the iconic intention that motivated their production as well as their preservation and veneration up to the presernt. The links take you to pictures as well as the full articles:
From Korean Tripitaka: "The entire Korean Tripitaka was carved twice during the Koryo Dynastry (918-1392), both times on wooden blocks. The king and the people believed that the presence of these sacred texts would help to drive back invasions and also bring good luck."

From Wikipedia: "The Tripitaka Koreana was first carved in 1087 when Goryeo was invaded by the Khitan in the Third Goryeo-Khitan War. The act of carving the woodblocks was considered to be a way of bringing about a change in fortune by invoking the Buddha's help. The original set of woodblocks were destroyed during the Mongol invasions of Korea in 1232, when Goryeo's capital was moved to Ganghwa Island during nearly three decades of Mongol attacks, although scattered parts of its prints still remain. King Gojong thereafter ordered the revision and re-creation of the Tripitaka; the carving took 16 years, from 1236 to 1251. This second revision is usually what is meant by the Tripitaka Koreana. In 1398, it was moved to Haeinsa, where they have remained housed in four buildings."

Life in Korea adds: "The original set took 77 years to complete, and was finished in 1087. However, it was destroyed in 1232 by a Mongol invasion. King Kojong ordered the set remade and work began in 1236. It was felt that replacing the wood blocks would convince Buddha to intervene and help repel the Mongolian invaders. Originally carved on Kangwha Island, they were moved to Haein-sa during the early years of the Yi dynasty."

Korean Tripitaka concludes: "The Korean Tripitaka has great national significance to the Korean people. It represents their steadfastness in adversity and their wish to maintain their cultural identity. In some ways it is the national conscience of Korea."

This collection of iconic texts imbued with both religious and nationalistic significance is doubly fascinating because it is the print blocks, not the printed texts produced from them, that were given and have retained such revered status. Perhaps that is because the wooden blocks are materially larger and more substantial and take much longer to create than printed paper books and so are better suited to veneration as monuments.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Married to the Qur'an

Mohammed Al Shafey reports in Asharq Alawsat about a custom in Sindh province of Pakistan called being "married to the Qur'an."
... In this type of marriage, young girls are asked to dedicate themselves to memorizing the Holy Quran. Their families then hold a ceremony to marry the girl to the holy book. A girl places her hand on the Quran and takes an oath that she is married to it until death. ...

Women who are married to the Holy Quran are not allowed to have a relationship with a man or to marry anybody. Moreover, men fear being cursed if they have a relationship with a woman who is married to the Quran.

The trend is more notable amongst the rich and feudal families in Sindh. It was first devised to deny women their rights of inheritance and out of fear of property being passed on to outsiders through the daughters or sisters [i.e. their spouses or children]. According to independent sources in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, approximately 10,000 girls are married to the Quran in the Sindh province. ...

Shafey notes that the government along with community activities have tried to suppress the practice, which he and they judge to be un-Islamic.

From the perspective of the comparative study of iconic books, this is a fascinating example because it combines a traditional iconic use of the physical Qur'an for taking oaths with its traditional performative use for memorized recitation. The oath becomes a wedding vow of fidelity to the recitation of the book itself. The combination thus becomes a marriage ritual with the power to constrain the young woman's future behavior. The social and religious power deployed through such ritual uses of scripture is very clear.

Islamic Art in London (2)


In addition to the article cited in my previous post, the BBC has now published a review of the London exhibit, Spirit and Life, which includes a slide show of seven images from the exhibit, including this page of a blue Qur'an. It adds that "Other texts on display include a single page from a vast Koran whose pages stretch 2m (6.5ft) in height and a scroll the width of a palm with a microscopic text probably painted with a single-haired brush."