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, December 8, 2009

Belanger on Old Books

The Chronicle of Higher Education presents a profile of Terry Belanger, founder and director of UVA’s Rare Book School (text for non-subscriber’s here). The reporter immediately describes Belanger’s pragmatic attention to the materiality of books:

Some years ago, Terry Belanger found a striking way to reveal the reverence that many citizens of the digital age continue to feel for old books. It is a sentiment he finds fascinating but only rarely appropriate or useful. Belanger, who retired in September as director of an educational institute called Rare Book School but who continues to teach there, brings an old volume to class, speaks about its binding and typography, and then, still discussing the book, rips it in half and tears it into pieces. As his horrified students watch in disbelief, Belanger tosses the shards into a nearby trash can and murmurs, "Bibliography isn't for sissies."

It is a brilliant piece of classroom theater. In one transgressive act, Belanger lays bare the pieties of his students and stakes out his own more pragmatic relationship with old books

The story is notable for paralleling the actions of some Bible professors who do similar things to Bibles to emphasize the importance of the contents, not the form. Like them, Belanger also tries to disrupt emotional attachments to the form of books, but in order to draw more attention to their material functions:

Belanger despises the tendency of some of his colleagues in the world of rare books to allow their fondness for books to become an undiscriminating fetish of form over function. He calls that "pretty-book syndrome" and works hard to guard against it by emphasizing the prosaic aspects of working with rare books and playing down the spiritual satisfactions. As he likes to quip, "Librarianship is not all glamour."

… Belanger told me that he has struggled throughout his career to "desanctify the notion that a book is a holy object" because he believes that "we have a better chance of saving books if people see that they have a use than if they are simply religious objects." Convinced that sentiment and veneration are not stable grounds upon which to build an academic field, Belanger wants rare-book libraries to be seen as laboratories, not shrines

The whole article is well worth reading, but these quotations do a particularly good job of highlighting issues of particular interest to the Iconic Books Project. Rather than dismissing “pieties” about books as Belanger does to call attention to their material functions or as almost all scholarship does to call attention to their textual contents, we are calling attention precisely to such book veneration. Our goal is not to increase or reinforce it: our project is descriptive, not normative. But the knee-jerk dismissal of books’ iconic values has produced a blind spot in scholarship that hides from analysis the social transactions conducted through books and other kinds of iconic texts. It is that blind spot that we are trying to expose to correct for its distorting affects. One such distortion shows up in this article's approving quotation of Belanger above: it is a very odd historical judgment indeed to think that laboratories are more likely to be preserved than shrines ...

1 comment:

S Brent Plate said...

Thanks for posting, Jim. Indeed this is fascinating stuff, and the two-sided aspect of Belanger's actions and attitudes you point out is important: the book IS material, but in the end, perhaps only that. While I very much enjoy Belanger's approach, like you, I do take issue with his somewhat idealist view that the "content" is more important than form, which seems to come out at the end of the article. The article suggests he is a pragmatist, and indeed he seems to be just that, but I would also include on a pragmatic viewpoint the notion that books (and many other material objects) will always be seen as sacred. It seems to be much more hardwired into humans than we progressively might be led to believe.

So, what is curious to me is the fact that Belanger visibly performs the ripping up of the text, does it physically, as a performative image. In other words, he himself understands the power of the iconic, even when the iconic is iconoclastic (iconoclasts are always doing things iconically to make their point).