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.)

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Lunacy and the Arrangement of Books

Lynn Wienck on BookPatrol calls attention to Terry Belanger's slim volume, Lunacy and the Arrangement of Books (Oak Knoll, 2003). The publisher calls it an "essay on the idiosyncrasies of book arrangements by collectors over the centuries," such as in this selection:

One promising method for detecting madness among book dealers, book collectors, and librarians is to examine the manner by which they arrange their books on their shelves. As a modest contribution to the literature of this subject, I propose to discuss the lunatic arrangement of books according to principles of color, size, number, aesthetics, subject order, Grangerization, and kleptomania.

Various sorts of books have, either formally or informally, taken advantage of color in their titles: think of Andrew Lang's multi-colored fairy books, of The Yellow Book (or of the Yellow Pages, for that matter), or of governmental White Papers. Meanings can become complicated: by Blue Book, for example, we might mean a guide to the prices of used cars, a college examination writing book, a handbook of contract bridge bids, the Social Register, or a book of etiquette; and determining the intended meaning depends on context. To a politician, a Blue Book is a government report; and because Blue Books tend to proliferate like Mediterranean fruit flies, one can understand the reply made by an Edinburgh bookseller to a woman who came into his shop one day and said she wanted a set of Blue Books: "I don't keep any, but 1 will procure what you want from the Stationery Office, What is the subject?"

"The subject? The subject doesn't matter, I want them in blue,"

With the help of a piece of blue tapestry which the customer had in her hand, the bookseller at length grasped that it was books of a certain shade of blue binding that she desired-books to match her carpet and the curtains in her living room. Once his mind "had coped with the initial absurdity of the idea of buying books for the colour of their binding," he found her an easy and profitable client. The blue books he sold her included E. H. Young's The Misses Mallett, Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence, and Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows.

The Edinburgh bookseller concluded that he was a house decorator as well as a bookseller: he decorated minds and rooms.

My only quibble has to do with labeling such behavior "madness." Concern for how books look and how they should be displayed are as old as the invention of writing, and remain very widespread, as this blog continues to document. Such common behaviors must be motivated by more than insanity ...

Monday, February 25, 2008

Books Changing Galleries

Several entries here have already commented on the long-standing influences of books' iconicity on library architecture. Now there's a first sign that the rise of book art may influence, if not the architecture than at least the furnishing of art galleries.

Tom Sowden and Lucy May Schofield created "sitting rooms" for book art in the touring exhibition they curated at several galleries in 2007. Sowden explains:

We both wanted to present a show where we could lose the preciousness that can surround an artist’s book. Let them become the tactile and interactive objects that they are usually conceived as being. Take them out of glass cases, out of libraries and away from the artist’s book fairs, resituating them in an environment that was conducive to reading and engaging with the books.

To both of us and to many who choose to work with the book form, handling is of prime importance. The ideas and experience are only available to a viewer if it is picked up and leafed through. We felt we had to create an easier atmosphere for the visitor to spend time with the books. In discussing the components that we would like in the show (comfy chairs, rug, lamps, bookcase or shelves) we quickly realized that what we were hoping to re-create was a sitting room, or perhaps more specifically the impression of a sitting room from a bygone age.

(h/t BookPatrol)

Saturday, February 23, 2008

A House for the Mind

Fiona MacCarthy, in The Guardian, profiles Colin St. John Wilson (1922-2007), the architect of the (new) British Library.

The driving force for the library was his own bookishness. Colin (always known as Sandy) St John Wilson was born in 1922, the year of Ulysses and The Waste Land, Wittgenstein's Tractatus, Mandelstam's Tristia and the last volume of Proust. For him, an ideal library had a certain aura close to that of the solemn sacred spaces of the Anglican churches and cathedrals he grew up in. His father was a notably radical bishop of Chelmsford and an expert on the 17th-century Divines. He was brought up understanding that books were a protected species and libraries were bastions of intellectual freedom. As he wrote: "One has only to recall the destruction of the library in Alexandria or, akin to that fire, the blasphemy that underlay the burning of the books by Nazi decree, for one to be aware that the library and what it houses embody and protect the freedom and diversity of the human spirit in a way that borders on the sacred."

His first ambition would have been to build a great cathedral, but a library came second. He retained a childlike vision of a "magic mountain of all the knowledge in the world".

Pallant House Gallery in Chichester is exhibiting Wilson's art collection in a gallery that he designed, and reflects on his career in the exhibit, "Colin St John Wilson: Collector and Architect."

Friday, February 22, 2008

"Living off the Bible"

Jeff Sharlet on The Revealer reviews Brett Grainger's new memoir of his Plymouth Brethren family, In The World But Not Of It: One Family's Militant Faith and the History of Fundamentalism in America (Walker, 2008). Sharlet comments: "Most compelling is Grainger's insider/outsider observations of his grandparents' everyday religion, such as the following passage describing in terms as perceptive as any I've read the relationship between religion and media, the ways in which the physical embodiments of faith reveal the nuances of a religion that from the outside may appear to be nothing more than a blunt cudgel of doctrine. It's worth reproducing in full:

Everything in the daily life of the Brethren revolved around reading and digesting the Word. They lived off the Bible the way the Great Plains Indians lived off the buffalo. No part was waste. Horns, spleen, tail -- everything had its proper use and purpose. All Scripture was inspired of God and worthy for instruction. Even the vast intestinal stretches of I Chronicles, the endless coils of begats, were laid in the sun to dry, then used to carry water. Not a day passed when they did not search the Scriptures for comfort or correction. The Word waited on the nightstand. It stared down from bookcases and dozed in glove compartments. Women carried a small, tidy volume in their purses. The men's were considerably larger. A believer's Bible was expected to age at roughly the same pace as his body. Elderly brothers carried copies that were battered and falling to pieces, with sagging spines and missing pages. Such Bibles were highly prized. They marked a man well acquainted with the Word. My grandfather's Bible was little more than a patch of rawhide wrapped around a ragged sheaf of pages. The binding was broken and whole chapters were missing or out of order, but he always seemed to be able to find what he needed.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

High Design Bible Mag

Graphically innovative Bibles do not just appear in the style of graphic novels and comics, manga or otherwise. The Wall Street Journal reports on The Bible Illuminated:

The Swedish-language Bible marries the standard text to glossy magazine-style design. Full-color pages are illustrated with a striking combination of news and dramatized photographs: a homeless child wrapped in a sweater on the streets of Bogotá, Colombia, illustrates the book of Job; a man who drowned trying to enter Europe, for Deuteronomy; and models posing in stylized scenes convey joy or despair. Bible passages are pulled out as captions.

... "There are 40 million [glossy] magazines sold each year in Europe," says Dag Söderburg, creative director at the edition's Swedish publishers, Förlaget Illuminated. "But the Bible, a literary treasure, stays on the bookshelf."

The work is aimed not at a religious audience but rather at readers concerned with ethical and philosophical questions surrounding issues such as global warming and religious fundamentalism.

The article also mentions other bibles in various graphic formats, including Thomas Nelson's glossy magazine version aimed at teenage girls. It notes that such innovative publishing formats have aroused little religious controversy, either in Sweden or America.

That observations stands in stark contrast to the media attention some of these innovations get (see my previous post about manga bibles). There seems to be a disjunction between what the media think Christians should find outrageous, and the indifference that actually meets such marketing ploys. In fact, innovative marketing of Bibles is often applauded as Christian outreach, just as the Swedish publisher presents it. In the case of the Bible, at least, the book's iconic status seems unaffected by its ever changing formats.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Theorizing Scriptures

Rutgers University Press has published Theorizing Scriptures: New Critical Orientations to a Cultural Phenomenon. This volume, edited by Vincent Wimbush, inaugurates the Signifying on Scriptures book series. It contains Wimbush's introduction setting forth a programatic agenda for scripture studies and twenty-seven essays by scholars representing diverse fields of expertise and perspectives.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Book-binder's Ritual Art

Maybe Quarterly (Spring, 2006) features the grimoire bindings of Paul Tronson. In an interview, the master book-binder describes his ritual practices when creating a grimoire's binding:

The main problem was that in order for it to become active and remain a very powerful tool I would need to be completely faithful in consecrating each seal and sigil which would need to be produced within the day and hour of it’s planet. Also a different Latin verse corresponding to each seal was chanted so the book was blessed and empowered during every part of it’s creation ...
Compare my previous post on restoring sacred objects. Tronson's own website provides considerably more information (and pictures) of the book-binders art, including his restoration of a Geneva Bible.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Another Manga Bible

Following a trend we've already mentioned with Tyndale House's Manga Messiah and Manga Bible, Doubleday has also released a graphic novel, The Manga Bible: From Genesis to Revelation. The New York Times profile of the book and author includes reactions from academics, including this:

“It is the end of the Word as we know it, and the end of a certain cultural idea of the Scriptures as a book, as the Book,” Timothy Beal, professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University, said of the reworking of the Bible in new forms, including manga. “It opens up new ways of understanding Scripture and ends up breaking the idols a bit.”

That opinion sounds distinctly odd, given the long tradition of illuminating Bibles, including entirely graphic "Pauper's Bibles," from the Middle Ages on, and more recent illustrated children's Bibles (usually heavily edited and paraphrased), not to mention renderings of biblical stories in art, drama and film. I find nothing new in this development except for the employment of a new artistic style. Outside the studies of some theologians, publishing and using Bibles has rarely been just about words, as the article's short history of Bible publishing demonstrates. Its divergent contents reveal the gap between much academic thinking about writing and books on the one hand, and the material reality of their production, sale and use on the other.
(Thanks to Andrew for the tip.)

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Is there growing contempt for books?

A news story and a blog entry both raise this question, though in opposite ways that are interesting.

Emilia Askari reports in the Detroit Free Press that "even the most popular libraries have some books on the back shelves or in the basement that no one ever wants to read." Discomfort with discarding or destroying books leads many libraries and people to find alternative means of disposal. So besides selling them at rummage sales and giving them away, the Bloomsfield Public Library decided to exhibit art works made from these unwanted volumes. One of the artists found the experience of sculpting with books and branches very positive: "I love sculptural things, and I love books, and I love trees."

But blogger Lynn Wienck on Book Patrol takes such book art as one piece of evidence of growing contempt for books.

I like books for themselves finding sufficient beauty in printed words, illustrations, and bindings. Atmosphere, mystery, and excitement are found among the simple black-and-white lines of text. Why then are books utilized to generate art, furniture, lamps, and clocks? The art is superb, creative, and fresh, but books are cut, drilled, and painted for a final product having nothing to do with reading skills. It seems a travesty, a mockery, of the original intent of the volume.

One could let this pass as yet another example of how different people have opposite values. However, both the news story and the blog account start with the wide-spread view that, due to cultural changes fueled in part by evolving technology and capitalistic commodification, books have lost value in many people's eyes.

The suspicion that this assumption is quite wrong led me to create this blog. All the varied instances of iconic books and texts indexed by the labels at left show that their veneration remains quite high, especially as measured by the crass scales of consumer culture, whether in terms of record auction prices or total numbers of books sold, but also as reflected in religious, political, and personal practices world-wide. Of course, many people dislike many of the uses to which books are put. But such disagreements, and especially the vehemence with which they are often expressed, only underscore the iconic status of books in the first place.