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.