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, June 3, 2007

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.


DMP said...

This is extremely interesting from the perspective of Watt's "Three Dimensions of Scripture," since all three elements (text, performance, icon) are readily apparent. I'd like to know more about how this DVD is used. From my perspective, the aural experience dominates, sort of like hearing a book on tape, and the video image is the "icon in the background," an image that adds stature but the text itself is not necessarily read. In this view, the icon is speaking. I keep imagining the DVD on the "play continuously" function, as background noise in someone's home while other events are going on.

Any comments on how this relates to the performative dimension of scripure? It seems analogous to the ritualized reading of scripture in its entirety, as is done in many traditions, but without any community or interpersonal element, further reinforcing the iconic dimension. And can the whole Bible be read in 72 hours, or does this DVD contain selections?

DMP said...

I'm reminded of a talk that Virginia Drucker gave at Syracuse University a few years ago, which is also now on-line as "The Virtual Codex from Page Space to E-Space". She wants to examine the iconicity of books in order to "discard the idea of iconic 'metaphors' of book structure [i.e., making the electronic text look and function like a codex] in favor of understanding the way these forms serve as constrained parameters for performance." Clearly this "slide show" DVD of the KJV Bible does not intend to create new spaces for reading, as Drucker advocates, but to reinforce the iconicity of the Bible. Therefore this version is not a threat to the status of the Bible, but perhaps it is itself resisting other more interactive or hypertexted electronic versions of the Bible that potentially could change one's relationship with the text.

Jim Watts said...

I think you're right about the performative dimension being dominant. Ritualizing the performative dimension of scriptures, either through recitation (as in this example) or through dramatization, aims primarily to produce a feeling of inspiration. That certainly seems to be what the ads and preview for the KJV DVDs emphasize by describing them as "entertaining," "beautiful images," and "mellow baritone voice," though as you note the iconic dimension is being used to back it up. For a much more dramatic and cutting edge production that has recruited high-profile African American actors and musicians to record the entire Christian Bible on CD, see The Bible Experience, which touts itself as "the most ambitious recording collaboration in history" and is being marketed with UTube videos. Here the performative dimension seems to be the only one in play and the goal of inspiration actually gives the company its name: Inspired by ... Media Group. So the form of scriptural preformances is not necessarily bound to traditional forms--in fact, one of the characteristics of scriptures'
performative dimension is that non-specialists (people who aren't clergy or academics) tend to have much greater freedom to make innovations in the forms
of performance. (As to how long reading the whole Christian Bible might take, I can only point to the DC Bible Marathon,
a group that since 1990 has annually organized people to read the entire Bible aloud and without commentary for 90 continuous hours.

But in a discussion of e-books, it should be noted that religious groups have been quite eager to apply cutting-edge to scriptures
textual dimension as well. My impression is (though I have not seen data to back this up) that e-books of various kinds have been much more successful for religious publishers than for secular presses, and especially in divisions that produce bibles and bible-study tools. Commentaries, dictionaries (both linguistic and thematic), and multiple-translation study bibles lend themselves to "hyper-text" applications. I see very few signs of vestigial "book metaphors" to use Virginia Drucker's phrase) restricting the imagination of these programmers. See, for example, the products marketed by Logos Research Systems. I use some of them myself, and have become addicted to the very real gain in research efficiency that they provide.

And, as several posts on this blog have already pointed out, 21st century technology and marketing are also employed to ritualize scriptures' iconic dimension in ways that rival, if not outdo, the most elaborate books of centuries past. So you can load the most elaborate study tools on your computer while you listen to great actors perform the text (or watch them act it out in major Hollywood productions), and keep a limited edition print of a recent, artistically produced book of scripture on display in your front hall. I have yet to see any resistance to such developments from any religious community that I'm aware of--and that contrasts very sharply with the fierce debates about e-books among readers of secular literature.

DMP said...

According to Summon's Bible Miscellany (Eerdmans, 2006), a book of Bible trivia with very few references, "It takes about 70 hours to read the entire Bible" (page 4).

Jim Watts said...

Sure enough, an Adventist University in Medellin, Colombia, has shown the 70-hour estimate to be on the mark (in Spanish, at least).