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, September 25, 2007

Pretty Bible

Hodder & Staughton will soon publish a Bible with this creative cover art (pointed out by Fade Theory). The design firm, CRUSH, described the assignment: "The intended market was people who do not already own a Bible, and most likely not card-carrying Christians, but those who might be inspired by the challenge that they ought to own a copy. The cover was to be something beautiful in its own right, unique and desirable."

Here in a nutshell is the essence of an iconic book: made beautiful to stimulate the desire to possess it to gain legitimacy ("they ought to own a copy"). Note that nothing is said about reading it ...

Magna Carta for sale

Sotheby's plans to auction a 1297 copy of the Magna Carta in December (thanks to PhiloBiblos for pointing out the New York Times article). This copy, one of only 17 from the 13th century and the only one outside Britain and Australia, was until last week on display in an alcove of the Rotunda of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. (pictured above, 2006). The Ross Perot Foundation which owns the document suddenly decided to put it up for sale. "Its departure came so suddenly that the archives did not have time to remodel the display case or fill it with some of the nine billion documents from the archives’ own collection." Sotheby's is advertising the sale as "the most important document ever offered at auction" and expects it to sell for $20-30 million.

Given the iconic importance of the Magna Carta (see my previous post) to American rhetoric about antecedents to the U.S. Constitution, I expect there will be considerable effort, perhaps political as well as financial, to keep it in the country and on public display. Stay tuned ...

Monday, September 24, 2007

Iconic First Amendment at Syracuse University

My employer, Syracuse University, has just built a monumental iconic text into its new building for the Newhouse School of Public Communication. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution wraps around three sides of the building in huge letters etched into glass, with especially large letters for the words, "freedom of speech" and "press," as one would expect on a journalism school. The glass enclosed floors above the phrase are mottled in an alternately dark-light design reminiscent of newsprint.

Putting parts or all of the U.S. Constitution in monumental form seems to be a growing trend (for another examples, see the entire text etched in glass at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, which opened in 2003). There is even a movement to put monuments to the Bill of Rights (the first Ten Amendments to the U.S. Constitution) on the grounds of all state capitals. The Statesman reports that Arizona approved such a monument in 2006. Texas has done so this year (2007).

In a 2004 article, I compared the movement to defend and promote monuments of the Ten Commandments with the movement to iconicly enshrine the Constitution. I suggested that the debate over the former was, in part, fueled by the latter and involved a struggle over "how to symbolize their relative position and status." That remains the case.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Devil's Bible exhibited in Prague

The 13th-century "Devil's Bible," tauted as the world's largest medieval manuscript, has gone on display in Prague. AFP reports: "The 13th century masterpiece, considered at the time as the eighth wonder of the world, was carried off as booty by Swedish troops from Prague during the Thirty Years' War but has returned at the end of painstaking negotiations and preparations between Prague and Stockholm." The 624-page, 75-kilogramme (165-pound) Bible "owes its name to a superb illustration of the devil found inside."

The status of valuable books as cultural relics is nowhere more evident than in the fact that moving them across national boundaries often requires state diplomacy. See previous posts on the Wardington Hours.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Price of Iconicity

Today's NY Times has a story about a 177-year-old first edition copy of the Book of Mormon that sold for $105,600.00 at an auction in upstate New York. It took all of six minutes for the auction to close, with an unidentified man from the East Coast making the winning bid.

Clearly one man's junk is another's icon. The book was discovered in the attic of an elderly man about to enter a nursing home just outside of Palmyra, NY, the birthplace of Mormonism. It is a striking contrast, where an iconic book was relegated to an attic in a region recognized by Mormons as a site of revelation and ultimately sold at an exorbitant price.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Heart Sutra on Pillars

A new installation of monumental scriptural texts has appeared in the last few years in Hong Kong. David Killick reports in the New Zealand Press that at the monastery in Ngong Ping Village is "the Wisdom Path, which opened in 2005. A winding trail leads past the monastery to 38 timber columns, built on the side of the mountain, their tops disappearing eerily into the mist.

"All but one of them are inscribed with sections of the 260-word Heart Sutra prayer. The highest column is blank, symbolising "emptiness" (Sunyata).

"Artist and scholar Professor Jao Tsung-I completed his calligraphy of the Heart Sutra in 2002, and dedicated it to the people of Hong Kong."

Monday, September 17, 2007

Happy Constitution Day!

Today is "Constitution Day" in the United States. Starting in 1997, Constitution Day Inc. (founded by Louise Leigh) led the effort to have September 17th, the anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787, recognized and celebrated. Recommended activities include having "school children, the military overseas and Governors or their representatives from every state reciting the preamble simultaneously." In 2004, the U.S. Congress designated Sep 17th "Constitution Day." This year's recital of the Preamble will be led by General Colin Powell at 2 p.m. EST.

Other interested organizations are commemorating the day differently. The U.S. National Archives, which displays the Constitution in its rotunda, invited families yesterday to add their signature to those on the Constitution (an activity available year-round at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia; see above photo (c) Iconic Books Project, 2005). This evening, it will host a panel discussion of racial equality in American History. CQ Press focuses on education in the classroom by offering curriculum guides for Constitution Day.

All three dimensions of the U.S. Constitution--textual, performative, and iconic--are being ritualized somewhere today.

More Beautiful Libraries

Sol Gaitan on if:book writes an interesting commentary on the exhibit of Candida Höfer's photographs at the Sonnabend Gallery. He notes that Höfer's photographs of Portuguese libraries create:
that feeling of "temple of learning" with which libraries have often been identified. On the other hand, the meticulous attention to detail, hand-painted porcelain markers, ornately carved bookcases, murals, stained glass windows, gilt moldings, and precious tomes are an eloquent representation of libraries as palaces of learning for the privileged. In spite of that, and ever since libraries became public spaces, anyone, in theory, has access to books and the concept of gain or monetary value rarely enters the user's mind.

Libraries are a book lover's paradise, a physical compilation of human knowledge in all its labyrinthine intricacy. With digitization, libraries gain storage capacity and readers gain accessibility, but they lose both silence and awe. Even in the digital context, the basic concept of the library as a place for the preservation of memory remains, for many "enlightened" readers the realization that human memory and knowledge are handled by for-profit enterprises such as Google, produces a feeling of merchants in the temple, a sense that the public interest has fallen, one more time, into private hands.

Comparison with Curious Expeditions' collection photographs of libraries (see previous post) makes me, however, think less in terms of a public-private distinction than the sacred-secular one evoked by the phrase "temple of learning." The ornate decorations of these libraries resembles ecclesiastical architecture, and that holds true whether the library is truly private or governmental or academic or really public (e.g. the New York Public Library, the British Library reading room, the Carnegie academic and public libraries all over the U.S. built in neo-classical style, etc.). The architecture effectively conveys a feeling that books and the knowledge they contain are something "set apart," that is, sacred or holy. Google books, on the other hand, conveys nothing of that, to me at least. There are attempts, however, to give at least some iconic texts in electronic form a semblance of a such an aura (e.g. the British Library's "Turning the Pages" web displays, Bible's on DVD that reproduce codex images, etc.). I suspect such efforts will not only continue, but become stronger and more sophisticated as publishers of e-materials (both for-profit and non-profit, secular and sectarian) try to appropriate the iconicity of bound books for their electronic products.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Habit-forming reading

Though it's the opinion of this blog that books are already among the most iconic objects and images in very many cultures, a British publisher, TankBooks, is trying to sell books by making them in the shape and look of what is in their opinion an even more iconic object, the pack of cigarettes. Headlined "Tales to Take Your Breath Away," the publisher justifies this in iconic terms: "TankBooks pay homage to this monumentally successful piece of packaging design by employing it in the service of great literature. Cigarette packs are iconic objects, familiar, tried and tested, and over time TankBooks will become iconic objects in their own right." Inspired Marketing calls this move "truly inspired." Sales stats should show whether they're just blowing smoke ...

Friday, September 14, 2007

Iconic Books Symposium at Syracuse University

The Ray Smith Symposium on Iconic Books will take place October 18-20th at Syracuse University. Twelve scholars with specialties in diverse cultures and periods will gather to energize research on this important but neglected topic.

Anchoring the symposium will be two keynote addresses:
- “Images to be Read and Words to be Seen: the Iconic Role of the Early Medieval Book” by Prof. Michelle Brown (University of London, the British Library) on Thursday, October 18th at 7:00 p.m., and
- “Making Do With the Fetish: Scriptures and Vernaculars” by Prof. Vincent Wimbush (Claremont Graduate University, the Institute for Signifying Scriptures) on Friday, October 19th at 5 p.m.

During the day on the 19th and 20th, the invited scholars will take turns leading hour-long discussions about iconic books from the perspective of their own research and specialties. The symposium will conclude with a small film festival featuring a few short movies in which iconic texts play a central role.

For the list of invited participants, topics of discussion sections, and registration, housing, and travel information, see the link at left to "Symposium 2007." We hope to see you there!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Fla. Synagogue Offers Time-Share Torah

The Associate Press reports:
For a one-time gift of $1,800, members of Temple Israel [in Miami] can sponsor a section of the scroll. Each year, during the week before that section is read at Shabbat services, donors can keep the torah in their home — an event that has prompted families to host scripture studies, parades and dinner parties.

"When it's brought into a house, it makes the house more holy," said Rabbi Mitch Chefitz, who came up with the idea. "If the torah's in your room, then you have an honored guest."

... The torah was in need of cleaning and repair — to patch holes and fix lettering — so Chefitz came up with the time-share project.

About 40 of the 52 available weekly torah time-shares have been purchased at Temple Israel, a Reform synagogue. Other members have given $18 to sponsor a single letter of the scroll, and all five books have been sponsored for $18,000.

... When [Sandy] Grossman first had the scroll in her home last year, she had a gathering for friends and family. When the guests left, her 12-year-old daughter, Bari Pasternack, ran to the torah and kissed it. She read from it, and she took it to her bedroom with her and chanted prayers.

The mother watched. All her life, Grossman said, she never truly understood the torah. But that night, it came alive.

It's hard to imagine a better example of the iconic power of a Torah scroll.

Supplement (September 18th): This news has not gone down well with Rabbi Yossi Mandel of Everett, WA, who describes the ritual care with which Jewish scribes copy torah scrolls and decries this innovation: "There is no need to denigrate what is considered a sacred artifact in Judaism."

Black Book Art exhibit

The Minnesota Center for Book Arts has mounted what it claims is the first ever exhibit of book art by African American artists, according to Minnesota Public Radio. On display are the works of twenty-five artists. The exhibit, "We, Too, Are Book Artists," runs through Sept. 22.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Beautiful Libraries

Curious Expeditions has put together a remarkable collection of photographs of beautiful libraries. This picture of the Philosophical Hall of Strahov Monastery in Prague (Czech Republic) is only one of very many examples.

From an iconic books perspective, the collection illustrates vividly the close association between religious architecture and library architecture. Frequently, as in the case of the Strahov Monastery, they are one and the same thing.

Even, perhaps especially, secular universities often repeat the trope of the library as the "soul" of the university. Donors and architects have literalized that metaphor with library temples in stone, steel, wood and concrete. Elaborate libraries have thus become the ultimate reliquaries for that nearly universal icon of knowledge and wisdom, the book.

However, for a very different aesthetic of library design, see the winning concept for a new Czech national library. Thanks to Lu Terceiro for pointing out both items.

Victorian family bibles gaining popularity

Ken Gloss, owner of the Brattle Book Shop and appraiser of rare books, told the Boston Globe that "What might have been [a time when] most of these Bibles, you couldn't even move, now some of these big old Bibles people will buy to give as gifts to divinity students, priests retiring. . . . There [are] definitely more people interested in religion, the history of religion, religious books, [and] different religions."

Friday, September 7, 2007

Miniature Guru Granth

newKerala.com describes a miniature (1x1 inch) Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh scripture) in Agra, India. According to Kashmir Singh, the head cleric there, it "was specially made by the British for the convenience of Sikh soldiers during World War I, as they could not carry a normal sized book in the battlefield to pray. It was manufactured in Germany." The date and location can't both be right (Germans printing Sikh scripture for the British during WWI?), but I suppose the printing may have occurred in the years before 1914.

This account supports previous posts on this blog that suggested practical motives behind the production of miniatures. Do I remain skeptical only because my weak eyes, peering through prescription reading glasses, can't imagine anyone regularly reading such small print?

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Iconic Bible Music Video

From the files of the Iconic Book Project: A hilarious celebration and parody of the iconicity of the Bible in American evangelical culture first appeared on YouTube in 2004. It is Dan "Southpaw" Smith's rap music video, "Baby Got Book."

New Prayer Book for Reform Judaism

People often express stronger feelings about the congregational worship books that they use routinely, such as hymnals and prayer books, than they do about versions of scriptures. Though many lay people leave debates over the latter to professionals, they willingly voice strong opinions about any changes to the former. Thus the news that American Reform Judaism is introducing a new prayer book, Mishkan T'filah: A Reform Siddur, next month provides an opportunity to think about the emotions that become attached to familiar ritual books.

The NY Times article about it (thanks to my colleague, Gail Hamner, for pointing it out) provides a convenient summary of the history of Reform siddurs (prayer books) in America. The new siddur is notable for offering four versions of every prayer: in Hebrew or Aramaic, in English translation, a contemporary poetic equivalent and a theological interpretation. It also provides two short commentaries: one "historical or practical," the other "spiritual."

The new siddur has been under development for twenty years, so its appearance can hardly come as a surprise. It will be interesting, though, to see to what extent the different options it provides actually get used.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Sell Books by Threatening to Burn Them

Prospero's Books, a used book store with a staff of two in Kansas City, has hit on book burning as a marketing device. They give a high-minded goal, according owner Tom Wayne on KCTV Channel 5: "We hope to spark a conversation about the importance of books in the face of a marked shrinking in reading trends, and staggering waste streams of actual books." But the motive is to move an unwanted inventory of 20,000 volumes, as the store website admits.

I suppose it was only a matter of time before the uproars over desecrating scriptures--and the secular equivalent, abhorrence to burning any book--would be seized on as a marketing gimmick. The Rag & Bone Blog wonders "Is this such a bad thing?" Prospero's notes that books are routinely thrown away by the thousands by bookstores and libraries, not to mention the rest of us.

Prospero's is, of course, playing on the iconic status of books, which distinguishes them from most other disposable commodities. I wonder, though, if their campaign doesn't do more to show just how disposable books are than to motivate people to save them.