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.)

Friday, June 29, 2007

Wardington Hours as Relic Book

PhiloBiblos pointed out yesterday's BBC report that the British government imposed an export ban on the Wardington Hours (a 15th century illuminated Christian devotional text, a "Book of Hours") in order to give the British Library time to raise the money to match a German buyers' offer. This example illustrates how rare, museum-quality books usually function socially more like relics than like icons. That is, unlike iconic books like the Bible or Qur'an which are readily reproduced and whose distribution and export tend to be heartily encouraged, relic books are regarded as one-of-a-kind and often carry significant associations with particular places or countries. The textual and performative dimensions of relic books have ceased to be important; they are valued for their iconic dimension alone. And, like other kinds of relics, relic books are often divided into smaller parts to distribute their value: so the BBC article ends by noting that the Wardington Hours may have originally been part of "a complete Book of Hours now held in the Huntington Library in California."

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Pro-Wrestler Chris Benoit and the Bible

In the coverage of the murder/suicide of professional wrestler Chris Benoit and his family, a recent Sports Illustrated article foregrounded the detail that the wrestler put a Bible next to the bodies of his wife and son before he hanged himself: "Benoit strangled his wife, suffocated his 7-year-old son and placed a Bible next to their bodies before hanging himself with a weight-machine pulley, authorities said Tuesday." The article at the linked site has since been changed to include new details, but the original text mentioned the Bible in the headline (which appeared on CNN.com), the lead paragraph, and the final sentence. Within the article, Benoit was said to have a "wholesome family-man image."

In a related article discussing the possibility that Benoit's actions were the result of 'roid rage, (psychological instability caused by the use of steroids), Sports Illustrated cites wrestling industry spokesman Gary Davis and the industry's public statement WWE [World Wrestling Entertainment] Shocked At Latest Developments In Benoit Tragedy, Concerned By Sensationalistic Reporting concerning Benoit's Bible: "The presence of a Bible by each [of the bodies] is also not an act of rage." The same article features a picture of Benoit captioned with "Police say Chris Benoit strangled his wife, suffocated his 7-year-old son and placed a Bible next to their bodies before hanging himself with a weight-machine pulley." Other news coverage (including AP wire articles) also includes the detail about the Bible. Clearly it is important for the reader to know this detail.

The iconicity of the Bible seems to be the key element in play, although one wonders what the rhetorical goal of including this fact about the murder scene might be. The articles do not make explicit connections between Benoit's actions and the Bible. Is the effect to construct him as pious, despite his crimes? Are we to think of him as having concern for the religious disposition of his family even after death? Is the Bible to be seen as a magical amulet of sorts, protecting them after death?

One must also consider this news coverage as it contrasts against similar coverage of other crimes. In cases when role-playing game books or certain music CDs (such as Marilyn Manson) have been found in the libraries of murderers or suicides, the press is quick to discover a causal link between the book or CD and the killer. One can only wonder how this story would play if the book placed by the victims had been a Qur'an.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Caligraphy & Recitation: Islamic Arts

The Indian Muslim profiles a professional calligrapher trying to preserve what he perceives as a dying art. He is quoted as equating calligraphy with recitation: "There are two major arts in Islam. Reciting the Quran well and writing the script of the Quran gracefully."

"Reciting well" would probably not describe a group of six men in Bahrain who are attempting to break the world speed record for reading the Qur'an aloud, which currently stands at "140 hours and two minutes."

Ancient Sutra auctioned

Bloomberg Radio reports on a Beijing auction:
"On Saturday, Hanhai auctioned a copy of the Prajna Paramita sutra that included an inscription claiming it was from the caves of Dunhuang in western China, where Buddhist art and religion thrived from the fourth century. The 3.1 meter parchment scroll, with the portrait of a sitting Buddha, sold to an anonymous phone bidder for 2.6 million yuan, a record for an ancient Chinese manuscript.
The inscription at the end, bearing the mark of collector Li Shengduo (1858-1935), a former envoy to Japan and owner of one of China's most extensive collections of ancient texts, says the scroll came from Dunhuang and was written in about 247. The Prajna Paramita sutra is believed to have been first translated into Chinese from Sanskrit around 402 by the monk Kumarajiva."
(Note: 2.6 million yuan = around $341,000)

Monday, June 25, 2007

Golden Qur'an at Pushkin Museum

Interfax reports:
"The unique Golden Koran is going to be presented to the public in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, on Monday.
The Golden Koran consists of 162 pages made of pure gold. The book weights almost 30 lb.
The Golden Koran is unique. It has been made by the world’s eldest mint, the Goznak Russian Mint in Moscow. It took them eighteen months to create the masterpiece, which it is impossible to copy or to forge.
It is based on one of ten copies of the 8th century manuscript of Uthman’s Koran, once preserved in a private collection in Russia. In 1936 the original of the world’s eldest manuscript of the Koran was appropriated by the Soviets and since that time it has been kept in the St. Petersburg Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
The Golden Koran will be exhibited in the Pushkin Museum for the next two weeks."

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Egypt asks for Rosetta Stone

The Art Newspaper reports that Egypt has asked the British Museum to loan it the Rosetta Stone for a three month exhibit. The article notes that one issue complicating this request is the stone's "iconic importance. It is probably the single most-visited object in the BM’s entire collection, attracting even more visitors than the Parthenon Marbles."

Declaration of Independence

As July 4th approaches, one of America's iconic national texts, the Declaration of Independence, is beginning to pop up in the news. A 1820 copy of the document fetched $477,650 at auction this month, while a Broadway Theater is reviving the 1960s musical, 1776, for a limited run. Of course, one of the most elaborate shrines to any relic text is the recently renovated Rotunda of the National Archives that displays the Declaration and the U.S. Constitution in Washington, D.C.

Hand copying the Bible

Lest we think that the devotional practice of copying has no place in modern American Christianity, today brings a story about a Missouri man who spent forty years copying the King James Version by hand.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Johannes who?

Ben Vershbow on if:book points out that the Koreans were printing with metal movable type two hundred years before Gutenberg. He provides a picture of "the oldest existing document in the world printed with metal movable type: an anthology of Zen teachings, Goryeo Dynasty, Korea... 1377."

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Rig Veda manuscripts on UNESCO's list

UNESCO has added 30 manuscripts of the Rig Veda to its "Memory of the World Register," which lists "documentary heritage of ... world significance." (Its news service mis-states their age as dating "from 1800 to 1500 B.C.", confusing an early but plausible date for the composition of the oral vedas with the dating of the 15th-19th century C.E. manuscripts at Pune, India.) The National Mission for Manuscripts of India's Ministry of Culture made the nomination on behalf of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune. That institute's library was ransaked in 2004 by one hundred fifty vandals outraged at the claims of an American scholar who had done research there. The UNESCO designation will bring prestige to the institute and, maybe, some protection. So here is a case of enlisting the prestige of an oral scripture, the Rig Veda, in the iconic form of some of its oldest manuscripts to lend legitimacy to a research institution. (By the way, UNESCO proclaimed "the tradition of Vedic Chanting" to be a "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity" in 2003.)

Books in French presidential portraiture

Thanks to Dan Visal on if:book for reproducing the Times Literary Supplement's one-paragraph historical survey of the use of books in the official portraits of French Presidents. The topic was stimulated by Nicolas Sarkozy's decision to have himself portrayed in a library full of leather-bound volumes (a pose favored also by many American lawyers).

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Miniature Emancipation Proclamation

NPR's All Things Considered had an interesting report yesterday on a miniature edition of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation that was carried by Union soldiers. This report discusses why it was important for soldiers to have a small book to carry (i.e., it is less cumbersome than a scroll!) but I think there must be an iconic aspect to this, as a pamphet edition would probably be more readable. I'd appreciate hearing from others who might know more about this edition, or who have any pictures of the tiny book. NPR's segment is also about an exhibit of miniature books on display at the Grolier Club in New York City.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Leading Iraqi calligrapher killed

The chaos in Iraq is taking its toll on all aspects of Iraqi culture, including the art of classical Arabic calligraphy. The BBC reported that Khalil al-Zahawi was ambushed and killed on May 26th. For pictures of him at work and a few samples of his work, see Sad day for Arabic calligraphers.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Manuscripts Online

News today that the Jewish National and University Library has made high definition digital images of all the pages of a 14th-century prayerbook, the Mahzor Nuremberg, available for viewing online. This codex is notable not only for its fine calligraphy and unique marginal commentaries, but also for its large size (50 x 37 cm, 1042 pages).

This news reminds me again of one of the remarkable benefits of the internet revolution that has made possible direct access, freely and world-wide, to one-of-a-kind texts. A leader in this field has been the British Library, whose Turning the Pages website offers complete views of more than a dozen works, including the Golden Haggadah, Baybar's Qur'an, and the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Compilation of Guru Granth

The India Post conveniently summarizes traditions regarding the compilation of the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh scripture). The article details clearly how all three dimensions of this scripture were ritualized from the beginning: inclusion or exclusion from the text marked the relative authority of rival gurus, performance of the verses was based on various Indian musical traditions, and iconic veneration of the book was mandated from its first publication.

The same paper also reports that the Sikh conflict in Punjab seems to be subsiding.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Monumental Qur'an

I'm not sure if this is the image Jim is looking for, but this is one big Qur'an on a stand, found here; according to this site, which appears to be that of a tourist, the image is of the Emir palace in the UAE with an monumental open Qur'an.

Searching for Quran monument over highway

For several years I have been searching for a location and a photo of a monument of an open Quran on a stand that is large enough for at least two lanes of cars to pass underneath. I have seen this in the video "Islam" in the Religions of the World series by Schlessinger Media, but not in a still photo. Can anyone help me out? Please post photos on the blog or email them to me.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Bible sales & media messages

I've been reading the Chicago Tribune's report on bible sales in the USA (see previous post) in conjunction with the China Daily's report about the "Bible Ministry Exhibition of the Church in China," which publicizes Chinese bible sales and distributions. The latter report and exhibit overtly aims to demonstrate to Western audiences that religious freedom exists in the People's Republic (a highly contested idea, to put it mildly). The juxtaposition of the two articles makes me wonder what ideological messages are conveyed by news stories about American bible sales. One overt message is to show with marketing statistics that American Christianity remains robust--not too different from the China Daily's goals, even if aimed at a different set of controversies. Another implied point reinforces the iconicity of the Bible as the perennial "best seller." The restriction of the sales statistics to single national markets (though many of the American publishers have international distribution networks) suggests that the Tribune article, like China Daily's, has some nationalistic undertones.

Conservation & Innovation (2)

The Chicago Tribune reports that the Bible sells big; so do its spinoffs. These spinoffs include those developed for niche markets ("Bibles for archeology buffs, for young couples and for golfers") and "Biblezines" modeled on Seventeen magazine, as well as more familiar children's bibles, study bibles, etc. From a perspective on iconic books and our earlier discussion of technological innovation in religious publishing, what fascinates me is the almost infinite variety in form that Christian bibles can take without sparking much controversy in churches--and also apparently without affecting the status of the iconic Protestant bible (black leather-bound codex) as one of the most recognizable religious symbols in contemporary societies. On the other hand, slight changes in translation practices that impinge on contemporary cultural debates (e.g. gender-neutral language in the NRSV or the proposed revised NIV) can prompt huge outcries and lead publishers (in the case of the NIV) to withdraw and revise expensive translation projects. There seems to be a widespread and highly nuanced differentiatation between what is essential to bibles (and, I suspect, many other scriptures) and what is variable. It is tempting to see this as a distinction between form and content, but that dichotomy is too simple. After all, the standard contents of a modern Protestant Bible (Old Testament, New Testament, but no Apocrypha) is the product of 19th century publishers' decision that the apocryphal books are unnecessary and therefore can be safely omitted in order to cut printing costs.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Sikh conflict 2

Frontline in "Faiths at war" provides some background on the current conflict among Sikhs in India's Punjab, including this description of the use of a very iconic book in intra-religious conflict:

"In 2001, Dalit godman Piara Singh Bhaniarawala set off riots by releasing the Bhavsagar Granth, a 2,704-page religious text suffused with sakhis, or miracle stories, extolling his spiritual powers. According to the godman, the Bhavsagar Granth was written after upper-caste Sikhs in a neighbouring home refused to allow the display of the gurdwara's Guru Granth Sahib in a Dalit home. When Sikh neoconservatives burned copies of the Bhavsagar Granth, Bhaniarawala's followers retaliated by setting alight Birs, or copies of the Guru Granth Sahib. SGPC President Jagdev Singh Talwandi insisted that Piara Singh be booked for murder, claiming that the Guru Granth Sahib is a 'living guru'. Punjab's government balked at this measure but did prosecute Bhaniarawala for inciting communal hatred."

Monday, June 4, 2007

On Restoring Sacred Objects

In On Restoring Sacred Objects (1998), Jack C. Thompson, engages thoughtfully the conflicts that can arise between a community with strict religious standards about who may handle a sacred text and professional conservators with strict professional standards about how to restore that text. This issue has generated discussion among museum curators and conservators: see, for example, Virginia Greene, "'Accessories of Holiness': Defining Jewish Sacred Objects" (1992), and Daniel D. Stuhlman, "The Preservation of Torah Scrolls" (2006).

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Wall graffiti > desecration charge

I have already pointed out that charges of desecrating scriptures are become increasingly popular weapons of inter-religious conflict, but now the charge of desecration has been extended to the erasure or overwriting ("scribbled lines" according to Daily News & Analysis) of a few Qur'anic verses on the wall of a nursing school in Pakistan. As a result, the principal and four students (all Christians) have been temporarily suspended pending a government investigation.

Female Torah scribe

An American has become "the world's only known, traditionally trained female scribe," according to The Jewish Daily Forward (June, 2005). But the article also describes the continuing halakhic arguments over whether women should be permitted to copy Torah scrolls.

Library of wooden printing blocks

If:book also provides Ben Vershbow's account and vivid pictures of the Haeinsa monastery in Korea where the Tripitaka Koreana is housed--88,000 wooden printing blocks of Buddhist scriptures engraved in the 13th century. His description of the monastery's ceremonies and its popularity with tourists as well as pilgrims underscores the rituals that convey iconicity to texts--in this case, not the books themselves but the blocks by which books can be printed.

Conservation & Innovation

Cordell pointed me to the The Complete KJV Holy Bible which contains "over 72 Hours of Text and Narration on Two DVDs." It reproduces the look of a Bible on screen, complete with turning pages (see the video preview). Ben Vershbow commented on the blog if:book, "What the makers of this DVD seem to have figured out is how to combine the couch potato ritual of television with the much older practice of group scriptural reading." It would be interesting to know how sales are doing--and whether people who buy the DVDs really use them very much.

Religious groups have voiced far less resistance to technological innovations in book forms, such as e-books and online editions, than literati have. I think that is because the sacred scrolls and codices of Jews, Christians, Muslims and others are so iconic that new technologies raise no threat of replacing them, only of providing new ways of accessing their contents. That is why, as Vershbow noted at the beginning of his blog post, "The bible has long been a driver of innovation in book design," as have other scriptures. Scriptures also preserve and propagate antiquated forms (scrolls, illuminated manuscripts, palm-leaf manuscripts, etc.) very effectively. In the case of sacred texts, then, innovation and fidelity to tradition do not seem to be contradictory impulses.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Old books as cultural memory in Timbuktu

Part of the power of iconic books, especially the old and/or rare copies that function as cultural relics, derives from how they seem to hold out the promise of preserving or even retrieving an endangered cultural heritage. Libraries therefore are often depicted as cultural shrines. A case in point is the story in Friday's Guardian that Timbuktu's old manuscripts are being gathered into public and private libraries and made accessible to scholars and the public. “`We must preserve them because it is our history,' says Abdulrahman Ben Essayouti, imam of Timbuktu's Great Mosque. `Writing remains but stories disappear'."

Friday, June 1, 2007

Tiny books

Books seem to lend themselves to experiments in miniaturization--and in marketing. LabNewsOnline reports that Canadian physicists have created a 0.07 x 0.10 mm book with thirty silicon chip pages and letters 40 nanometers high (cost per copy: £10,000). Unlike this case, miniature books frequently take the form of scriptures. WNG-GraphiLux markets several scriptures, each inscribed in its entirety on the surface of a single crystal. Available and marketed separately are the entire Greek Bible, the Qur'an in Arabic, and Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit, which are sold in pendants and other jewelry. The popularity of scriptures as amulets has long fueled the production of tiny scriptures. Miniature Bibles and Qur'ans are now widely marketed on the internet.