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, October 14, 2009

Iconicity from a Book History perspective

(Deirdre Stam participated in the Saturday sessions of last month's Iconic Books Symposium. She later wrote me some reflections on the event which I think are worth sharing with a wider audience. I'm reproducing them here with her permission.)

When putting myself in the shoes of a person in the field of religion, I could understand your statements about scholarship in that and other humanities areas ignoring the "iconic" element of texts and of their physical manifestations. Working in another area, though, as I have for many years, I've become aware of an enormous body of inquiry in "book history" about the physical history and properties of texts and the more recent expansion of concerns relating to the "book." Particularly since Donald McKenzie's work in the 80's, drawing significantly from the French theorists of the previous decades, the field has looked at both the physical book (its printing, manufacture, etc.) and, more recently, its uses and significance in its culture. Robert Darnton would be a principle proponent as would Anthony Grafton, both eloquent spokesmen for this approach. Many of the texts they have addressed have been iconic, and in some cases the editions are iconic. Sometimes even the copies they have examined have had iconic properties sometimes for reasons relating to the text, but sometimes for different reasons having little to do with the textual and/or intellectual content.

For this topic of iconic "books" in religion, I think it would be helpful to break down that word "book" into "text," "manuscript" if appropriate, "edition" if appropriate as for printed works (and family of editions), and "copy" within an edition. A copy, for example, can be iconic because of its unique binding, or its variants, or its association (such as having been owned by Thos. Jefferson as was a Koran recently used to swear in a Detroit congressman). The intellectual content was really secondary in this example. The term "book" while a good catch-all for the many issues addressed in a meeting such as this, is too broad, I think, for clear communication. It seemed to me that some attendees assumed the codex form when they heard "book," or allowed codex and scroll, but drew the line at web page or oral recitation. Others had a broader range of possible physical forms in mind when they heard the term. The distinctions described above might have eliminated some confusion.

For a sense of present-day book history, I would strongly recommend looking at the offerings of the Rare Book School, located at the Univ. of Va. but somewhat independent of it. RBS is a non-degree, continuing education program of about 100 courses a year, with some given at the Morgan Library and Walters Art Gallery and elsewhere, which are attended by (grown up) curators, academics, collectors, and obsessives of various sorts, with a small sprinkling of graduate students. The emphasis is on the physical book. While book historians have become interested in run-of-the-mill publications in recent years, the bulk of time is still devoted to iconic texts and publications. The new director is the charismatic book historian Michael Suarez, SJ, who left a pair of tenured positions at Oxford and Fordham to give the school a new and probably more scholarly direction. (It was very curatorial before -- but great anyway.) You'd enjoy meeting Suarez and I suspect you'd enjoy a week-long course at Rare Book School. Total and exhausting immersion. The Univ. of Va. has a vast workshop creating digital versions of texts and related databases; that is in itself an eyeopener. (There are Rare Book Schools at Lyons and UCLA but these are newer, smaller, and only tangentially related to the "mothership" at UVa.)

A number of rare book libraries have scholarships for brief projects on the history of the book using their collections. (Fellows need to use the materials uniquely held in these institutions -- the emphasis is on the physical.) The attendees might like a list of these fellowships even after the fact of the "Icon" conference itself -- the libraries include AAS, Newberry, and a dozen or so others. Some of these libraries belong to the Independent Research Library Association (IRLA) and their fellowships would be accessible, directly or indirectly, through the web site of that organization. The SHARP newsletter lists a lot of these opportunities. While many fellows study iconic works in the collections of these libraries, I think that the emphasis on the "iconicism" itself, especially within religious materials, would be novel and welcome. AAS does a theme each year; I wonder if this theme might appeal to them for a future summer.

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