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.)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Islamic Creationists and the Rhetoric of a Beautiful Book

The New York Times article "Islamic Creationist and a Book Sent Round the World" examines the recent mailing of Harun Yahya's Atlas of Creation to scientists, politicians, and museums in the United States. Of interest to Iconic Books aficionados is the role that appearance plays in this latest round in the debate over human and natural origins. According to the article, "for many, it is too beautiful for the trash bin but too erroneous for their shelves." The article quotes UCB evolutionary biologist Kevin Padian as saying his colleagues were "just astounded at its size and production values and equally astonished at what a load of crap it is." Elsewhere, the article quotes Brown University biologist Kenneth R. Miller: "While they said they were unimpressed with the book’s content, recipients marveled at its apparent cost. 'If you went into a bookstore and saw a book like this, it would be at least $100,' said Dr. Miller, an author of conventional biology texts. 'The production costs alone are astronomical. We are talking millions of dollars.'"

Scholars of iconic books are quite familiar with the rhetorical value of a beautiful book and equally familiar with Islam as one of the traditions that is most well-known for its beautiful religious texts. Here, I think, we see a member of that tradition put those artistic and rhetorical tools to use in a different kind of argument. Even if the content of the Atlas of Creation fails to persuade the audience, the physical presence of the book is too powerful to ignore.


Jim Watts said...

I received a copy two weeks ago and it continues to sit on my desk for exactly the reason you mentioned--I can't bear to throw away such a beautiful volume!

Jim Watts said...

With the obvious exception of extravagant scriptures, can anyone think of another example of producing a lavishly expensive book in order to win greater respect for the ideas it contains?

Cordell Waldron said...

. . . can anyone think of another example of producing a lavishly expensive book in order to win greater respect for the ideas it contains?

Although not exactly what you're asking about, I'd like to throw in the example of the graphic novel as a format that seems to have enhanced the respect for its contents.

The graphic novel is a combination of the comic book's visual format and the novel's length and literary coherence. The typical graphic novel is 100-200 pages of a continuous, self-contained story told through pictures and words. Some graphic novels republish comic books that originally appeared monthly; others are conceived of as discrete texts that are only published in a single bound volume.

Graphic novels also differ from monthly comics in that they are typically kept in print for longer periods of time. That is, they are not published once and then left to become collectible. They can be ordered, stocked, reordered, and put into 2nd printings (and 3rd and 4th. . .) like other books. The continuous availability makes them accessible to audiences decades after their original publication.

The effect that the graphic novel format has had on the comics industry over the last three decades is that certain titles have won greater respect than monthly comics ever had. For example, Alan Moore's Watchmen and Art Spiegelman's Maus (to name but two) are the subject of articles in peer-reviewed scholarly journals and are frequently taught in college English classes.

I think this enhanced respect for certain visually-told stories would not have been possible without publication in a traditional codex form. Making monthly comics available in book form has made it possible to treat them with the same privilege and seriousness we apply to more conventional novels, epics, etc.