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, December 24, 2008

Obama will use Lincoln Bible for inaugural oath

Following many other presidents who have used relic Bible's to take their oath of office, Barack Obama has chosen to use Lincoln's, according to Cox News Service:

President-elect Barack Obama will take the oath of office on the same Bible that Abraham Lincoln used for his swearing-in.

The burgundy velvet-bound volume known as the Lincoln Bible was purchased in 1861 by then-Supreme Court Clerk William Thomas Carroll for use in Abraham Lincoln's inauguration because the president-elect's family Bible was packed away and en route from Illinois to Washington.

The Lincoln Bible, now in the Library of Congress collection (as is Lincoln's family Bible), has not been used in a presidential inauguration since Lincoln took the oath in 1861.

The reader's comments on this article in the Boston Globe are unusually interesting. Ray Sollier takes issue with some common claims about the history of using Bibles in presidential oaths. I wish Ray would cite his sources ...

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Preservation, preservation, preservation ...

Kevin Kelly on the Long Now Blog points out that storage of digital information should really be called movage, because it's only by moving it from one medium and platform to another that you can keep it accessible. And then there's the problem that:
The storage medium itself can decay. Turns out that paper is much more stable over the long term than most digital media. Magnetic surfaces flake, peel, shatter. And the supposed durable CDs and DVDs aren’t very stable either. ...

Proper movage means transferring the material to current platforms on a regular basis — that is, before the old platform completely dies, and it becomes hard to do. This movic rythym of refreshing content should be as smooth as a respiratory cycle — in, out, in, out. Copy, move, copy, move.

In other words, anything you want moved to the future has to be given attention to keep it moving forward.

We don’t know what the natural movage respiration cycle is for digital media yet since it is still very new, but I suspect the cycle is much shorter than we think. I would guess it is 5 years. No matter what digital format you have your precious stored on, you should expect to move it onto new media in five years — and five years after that forever!

Move it, move it, move it.

Paper is looking better all the time. Clay tablets, even better! Alexander Rose writes also on the Long Now Blog that the invention of a tough and resilient ceramic at UC Berkeley has the Long Now Foundation interested:
... we are quite interested in it as a long lasting material for the 10,000 Year Clock. We already plan on using engineered ceramics for bearings and other wear components, but the elimination of ceramics only real drawback, that it can shatter, really opens up the engineering possibilities.

It seems to me that they should broaden their thinking beyond clocks. Ceramics formed the original cheap and durable writing medium, as I've commented before. Wouldn't it be funny if the end result of all our experimenting with electronic technology would turn out to be a high-tech version of the cuneiform tablet!

Bookbindings of the Morgan

Sylvia on Classical Bookworm points out:
Legendumst posted about a new exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum, Protecting the Word: Bookbindings of the Morgan. Pierpont Morgan was, well, filthy rich, and he purchased a lot of beautiful things including books with exquisite bindings. These are now on display and you can see a handful of them online. I thought I would post one of them—it actually made me gasp when it came up on screen. They aren't sure exactly where and when it was made but they guess Salzburg around 760–790. A hundred years later or so it was "recycled" as the back cover of the Lindau Gospels. The front cover is astonishing also, but I prefer the older one.

Book Patrol: The Chinese Book Burner and the Great Wall of Books

Michael Lieberman on Book Patrol:

Qin Shi Huang, is one of the most notorious and prolific book burners in history. During his reign from 221 BC - 210 BC, Qin Shi Huang outlawed Confucianism and ordered the burning of pretty much all the books that came before him including the classic works of the Hundred Schools of Thought. It is also believed that he buried alive many of the scholars of the day. All in his quest to unite China.

This the same guy who built the Great Wall.

Jorge Luis Borges wrote an essay on Qin Shi Huang, 'The Wall and the Books' (La muralla y los libros) which appeared in the collection Other Inquisitions (Otras Inquisiciones), where he muses on these two grand feats.

The contemporary art company WELL has taken the Borges essay a bit further with their Great Wall of Books project - "a unique contemporary art project, simultaneously: public sculpture, interactive installation, outdoor performance, exhibition space and a point of creative departure for invited artists and communities. Literally a gigantic book, 5 metres tall and opening out to over 11 metres wide, it is a vessel that both generates and stores written, aural and visual stories." The project launched in 2007 with a 4 month stint in Macao, China and spent January of this year in Melbourne, Australia.

This has been the third installment in Book Patrol's new series Life of Google, featuring images from the vast archives of Life magazine that now appear on Google.

Modern Library Architecture

Sylvia on Classical Bookworm points out:

The WebUrbanist has just put together a collection of fifteen "dazzling" modern libraries from all over the world. It's a diverse assortment, from the Anchorage "washtub" to Prague's purple and pea green amoeba. Seattle is there, of course, as is Jay Walker's library. Two interesting libraries missing from the list are Salt Lake City's main library and the Vancouver Public Library. I haven't featured the latter before, so here it is:

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Breathing Books!

Michael Lieberman on Book Patrol calls attention to "Bre Pettis takes us on a short video tour of Edith Kollath's latest exhibit Property and Evidence: The Whole Story which is currently on view at Dam, Stuhltrager Gallery."

Things - Edith Kollath Creates Books that Breathe from Bre Pettis on Vimeo.
- Kollath's account of the experience.
- Press release for the exhibit

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Book Publishing After Google Books

The author, James Gleick, who negotiated on behalf of authors in the recent legal settlement between Google and publishers, writes in the New York Times about the book business after Google Books.

He argues against those who think the book is obsolete:
I think, on the contrary, we’ve reached a shining moment for this ancient technology. Publishers may or may not figure out how to make money again (it was never a good way to get rich), but their product has a chance for new life: as a physical object, and as an idea, and as a set of literary forms.

As a technology, the book is like a hammer. That is to say, it is perfect: a tool ideally suited to its task. ... I’m just saying that the book is technology that works.

He observes that the range of genres taking book form has been narrowed by the electronics revolution:
There’s reading and then there’s reading. There is the gleaning or browsing or cherry-picking of information, and then there is the deep immersion in constructed textual worlds: novels and biographies and the various forms of narrative nonfiction — genres that could not be born until someone invented the codex, the book as we know it, pages inscribed on both sides and bound together. These are the books that possess one and the books one wants to possess.

For some kinds of books, the writing is on the wall. Encyclopedias are finished. ... Basic dictionaries no longer belong on paper .... And those hefty objects called “telephone books”? As antiquated as typewriters. The book has had a long life as the world’s pre-eminent device for the storage and retrieval of knowledge, but that may be ending, where the physical object is concerned

Glieck sees a great value for authors in Google's project:
The vast majority [of books scanned by Google], four million to five million, are books that had fallen into a kind of limbo: protected by copyright but out of print. Their publishers had given up on them. They existed at libraries and used booksellers but otherwise had left the playing field. ... This means a new beginning — a vast trove of books restored to the marketplace. ...

He has clear advice for how book publishers can survive in these new circumstances:
Go back to an old-fashioned idea: that a book, printed in ink on durable paper, acid-free for longevity, is a thing of beauty. Make it as well as you can. People want to cherish it.

That matches our observation that while the book as information source is facing stiff competition, the book remains unchallenged as the preeminent icon of education, wisdom, tradition, culture and religion.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Cremation ceremonies for Guru Granth

Thaindian News provides a feature story on the regular cremation rites for the Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, in northern India:

At Angitha Sahib, the old copies of Guru Granth Sahib from all over the world are put to flames as part of funeral rites. The whole procedure is a way of bidding farewell to the scripture with utmost reverence. This is the only Gurudwara, which performs this ritual.

“Scriptures from all across the world like England, America, Canada and Pakistan have come to Angitha Sahib in Sahaspur for getting cremated. With full respect, these holy epics are first given bath, and then they are wrapped in new clothes. Then these scriptures are treated like living beings. This service is done in privacy,” said Harsharan Singh, Mukhya Sewadaar (chief helper), Angitha Sahib Gurudwara.

When old and worn out scripture reach Angitha Sahib in Sahaspur, first of all they are given bath after which every page is cleansed and later these scriptures are wrapped in white cloth and then the funeral takes place. The cremation lasts over six days and on the seventh day, the ashes are collected. ...

"And apart from Guru Granth Sahib we also cremate Holy Bible, Bhagwad Gita, Ramayana and Quran,” ...

This year about 2,000 scriptures have come from all over the world to Gurudwara Angitha Sahib for cremation, of which around 470 worn out scriptures were flown in from the Great Britain by a chartered flight. (ANI)

It is particularly interesting that the Gurudwara extends its funerary services for scriptures to Christian, Hindu and Muslim texts as well as Sikh. This illustrates the widespread tendency to extend one's own standards for manipulating scriptures to those of other traditions in a spirit of mutual respect and tolerance.

Life's pictures on Google

Michael Lieberman on Book Patrol posts this delightful picture of children parading the books selected for the William Allen White children's book awards in Americus, Kansas in 1959. It is from the vast picture archive of Life Magazine that is now being made available on Google Image Search.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Floppy Bibles Invade Academics

The book exhibits at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting focus on academic titles, but that icon of Protestant religiosty, the floppy Bible, is encroaching even here.

Zondervan's A Reader's Hebrew Bible comes in a limp, light-brown faux-leather binding with silver-tinged pages. The text is BHS with the Westminster morphology at the bottom of the page, for quick reference. As an icon, it is facinating to see how the Reader's Hebrw Bible associates itself simulataneously with the scholar's Biblica Hebraica Stuttgartensia by the color of its cover and with the preacher's bible by its limp cover material and metallic edges. Rumor has it that sales were brisk. This is Zondervan's second scholarly floppy-Bible: last year, it released A Reader's Greek New Testament.

Harper Collins' entry in the floppy Bible competition is the very different Green Bible (see Cordell's previous comment about it). Its limp cover is made of recycled linen, its paper is (partly) recycled, of course, and its NRSV text is periodically rendered in green ink to highlight environmentally friendly verses. In this case, at least, the Bible takes an iconic form that indexes its publishers' intended message directly, and in its own substance models the behavior it aims to elicit from readers!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Iconic Books at SBL

Those of you heading to Boston for the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting next week-end might want to check out several papers on iconic books. As usual, the Scripture As Artifact consultation on Monday will highlight the subject:

Dori Parmenter will address "Burials and Book-Burnings: Contemporary Concerns for Bible Disposal";

Jay Larson will talk about "Codifying Memory" in the Gospel Codices of late antiquity; and

Zeev Elitzur will start off the session with “Holding an Object”: The Coming of Age of Scripture as Holy Artifact."

Jay is also talk about "The Gospels as Sites of Memory" analogous to monuments in the session on Mapping Memory: Tradition, Texts, and Identity on Sunday morning.

This year, I'm leaving the iconic dimension in their capable hands while I talk about "Performing the Torah: The Rhetorical Function of the Pentateuch" with the Performance Criticism consultation on Sunday afternoon.

Hope to see you in Boston!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Monumental Text Debate in Pleasant Grove City, UT

The latest contest in a long history of debates over the presentation of monumental scriptures in public places is unfolding in Pleasant Grove City, Utah. As reported by the New York Times in the article "From Tiny Sect, Weighty Issue for Justices," a city park already has a Ten Commandments monument (donated in 1971 by the Fraternal Order of Eagles) that the town's mayor, Michael W. Daniels, explains as representing "law and history" (but not religion).

Now a religious group called Summum would like to donate a similar monument displaying the Seven Aphorisms that guide the group's theology. Pleasant Grove City did not accept the donation, and the resulting lawsuits have reached the U.S. Supreme Court level. At stake are issues of free speech and freedom of religion in public spaces, and whether a public park that displays the texts of some religions ought to display the texts of other religions as well (if their members choose to donate such monuments). As with other disputes over Ten Commandments monuments, this goes far beyond the text itself, and the physical presence of the monument takes on the weight of Constitutional law; the acceptance (or lack thereof) of a particular religion; and the identity politics of the city, state, and nation.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Pricey pictures of books

Michael Lieberman on Book Patrol points out that the two top-grossing pictures in Christie’s Nov. 6 auction of Impressionist and Modern art contained images of books. They were “Book, Pipe and Glasses” by Juan Gris (above) for $20 million and Picasso's "Two People" for $16 million.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Betting on the Future of the Book

The folks at if:book have issued an invitation to participate in an NEH-funded effort to create "two ambitious digital publishing projects." Their goal is to merge rich multimedia, which so-far largely exists on CDs and hard drives, with internet collaboration, which so far "generally occurs around predominantly textual media."

I find it fascinating that their goal is explicitly to emulate a book:

The printed book is still the gold standard of the academy. The goal of these projects is to produce born-digital works that are as elegant as printed books and also draw on the power of audio and video illustrations and new models of community-based inquiry — and do all of these so well that they inspire a generation of young scholars with the promise of digital scholarship.

It seems like the logical end-point of this line of development would likely look very much like the books on my shelf, or maybe even Dori's beautiful artbook pictured at the left top of this blog, except that the pages inside would contain electronic media. But if that is the end produce, in what sense would that be anything but ... a book?

Meanwhile, the folks at the Long Now Foundation who spend time worrying about a "digital dark age" in our future, are placing their bets on laser-etched titanium for preserving the world knowledge, or at least its languages. They've announced that their Rosetta Disk Project is now complete. You, too, can help preserve this knowledge by taking home one of the last two first-edition disks--for $25,000, or so.

Friday, October 31, 2008

More on Guru Granth Sahib's Tercentenary

The Sikh celebration of the 300th Anniversary of the Granth Sahib's elevation to the status of Guru is being covered by many news reports. The Hindu describes the various politicians involved in the celebration, including of course India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It also describes the procession (nagar keertan) of the Guru Granth:

The Guru Granth Sahib was carried in a ‘palki’ (palanquin) placed in a specially designed vehicle. ... The straight road between the two Gurdwaras was choked with an estimated 3 lakh [300,000] pilgrims. ... The sacred Guru Granth Sahib was received at the main gate amid the ‘shastra salami’ of swords. The process of enthroning it included its ‘prakash’ and application of sandalwood tilak and aarti. The Guru Granth Sahib was opened at random for the ‘hukamnama’ or the edict for the day.

NDTV provides a slideshow of the celebrations. NewsBlaze provides a more discoursive account of the meaning of the event:

The Adi Granth was conferred the title of "Guru of the Sikhs" by the tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, in October, 1708. The event, when Guru Gobind Singh installed Adi Granth as the Guru of Sikhism, was recorded in a Bhatt Vahi (a bard's scroll) by an eyewitness, Narbud Singh, who was a bard at the Guru's court. There are a variety of other documents attesting this proclamation by the tenth Guru.

As per the Guru's commandment: A close associate of Guru Gobind Singh and author of Rehit-nama, Prahlad Singh, recorded the Guru's commandment saying "With the order of the Eternal Lord has been established [Sikh] Panth: all the Sikhs hereby are commanded to obey the Granth as their Guru".(Rehat-nama, Bhai Prahlad Singh)

... Guru Gobind Singh Guru (1666-1708), the tenth Guru in Sikh tradition, affirmed the sacred text Adi Granth as his successor, terminating the line of human Gurus, and elevating the text to Guru Granth Sahib. From that point on, the text remained not only the holy scripture of the Sikhs, but is also regarded by them as the living embodiment of the Ten Gurus. The role of Guru Granth Sahib, as a source or guide of prayer, is pivotal in worship in Sikhism.

... The 'Guru Granth Sahib' is a voluminous text of 1430 pages, compiled and composed during the period of Sikh Gurus from 1469 to 1708. It is compiled in the form of hymns written in praise of God, which describe what God is like and the right way to live.

Sri Guru Granth Sahib has been given status of juristic person -The Supreme Court of India has held that Sri Guru Granth Sahib is a juristic person and it is also very clearly clarified and left no lacuna to raise any misconceptions and controversies and the judgment does not equate Guru Granth Sahib with Hindu idol or deity. Rather the Supreme Court said when faith and belief of two religions are different; there is no question of equating one with another. The Court held categorically that Guru Granth Sahib couldn't be equated with an idol, as idol worship is contrary to the Sikh principles. Thus it clearly maintains and upholds the separate, unique and independent identity of Sikhism. It was held that no doubt the Sikh scripture is a sacred book but it can't be equated with the sacred books of other religions as the reverence of Guru Granth Sahib is based on different conceptual faith, belief and application. It is the living and eternal Guru of Sikhs.

... Huge properties worth crores of rupees exist in the name of Guru Granth Sahib in various parts of the country. These were encroached upon by usurpers as Guru Granth Sahib, not being a juristic person, could not be deemed to hold property in the eyes of law. It also could not sue to recover the property for the same reason. This judgment has plugged the loophole. Now Guru Granth Sahib is a juristic person that can hold and dispose of property and can sue for recovery of property belonging to Guru Granth Sahib in the wrongful possession of unscrupulous people who were taking the undue benefit the legal lacunae.....

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Video Game Recall Due to Qur'anic Content

Sony has recalled the roll-out of its latest video game LittleBigPlanet because some late vetting discovered Qur'anic quotations in some of the game's licensed music. Sony's Director of Corporate Communications posted the following statement on the Playstation 'blog on October 17th:
During the review process prior to the release of LittleBigPlanet, it has been brought to our attention that one of the background music tracks licensed from a record label for use in the game contains two expressions that can be found in the Qur’an. We have taken immediate action to rectify this and we sincerely apologize for any offense that this may have caused.

We will begin shipping LittleBigPlanet to retail in North America the week of October 27th. Sorry for the delay, and rest assured, we are doing everything we can to get LittleBigPlanet to you as soon as possible.
An ABC.com article clarifies the content in question:
The song is titled "Tapha Niang," composed by world musician and Malian kora player Toumani Diabate.
[. . .]
The two lines that appear in Diabate's song are from 3:185 ("Every soul shall taste of death") and probably 55:26 ("All that is on earth will perish").
This action is another example of the debates over the limits on performing scriptural texts. For critics of Sony and Diabate, the use of Qu'ranic verses in a video game is inappropriate. For others (like Diabate, who is Muslim, and the American Islamic Forum for Democracy), the use is acceptable.

Bible Read Day and Night

For the Synod of Bishops in Rome this month, the Vatican not only sponsored a special polyglot edition of the Bible, it also organized a week-long reading of the whole Bible in the Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme a Roma, with simultaneous broadcast on Vatican radio. See the links and accounts collected by Silvia on Classical Bookworm.

In the U.S., the International Bible Reading Association sponsors a read-through of the Bible every year in Washington, D.C., over ninety hours leading up to the National Day of Prayer.

The Green Bible

Harper-Collins is publishing a new edition of the NRSV Bible with an ecological twist. Hearkening back to the traditional "red-letter" Bibles, this "green-letter" Bible uses green to highlight ecology-minded passages, is printed on recycled paper using soy-based ink, and is bound in a cotton/linen cover.

The Green Bible may be understood as the textual component in a shift in certain Christian theology that is taking place. As an MSNBC article summarizes it,
While some Christians have been active on these issues for decades, others – particularly Evangelicals – have long questioned the justification and aims of environmentalism. Many conservative Christians have viewed it as a "leftist" issue, sometimes bordering on pantheism. In recent years, however, some prominent evangelical leaders have been converted by the evidence of climate change, and in 2006, they signed the Evangelical Climate Initiative. Others continue to dispute the evidence.
Iconic books have long been used to stake dogmatic and theological claims—here we recall the late medieval controversies over Bibles in English—and this one makes the same move by manifesting its values in its physical form.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Simon Romero in the New York Times shows how very far the idea of the mobile library can go and how inspiring the power of reading can be:
Mr. Soriano’s Biblioburro is a small institution: one man and two donkeys. He created it out of the simple belief that the act of taking books to people who do not have them can somehow improve this impoverished region, and perhaps Colombia. ...

Into [Columbia's] violence, which has since ebbed, Mr. Soriano ventured with his donkeys, taking with him a few reading textbooks, encyclopedia volumes and novels from his small personal library. At stops along the way, children still await the teacher in groups, to hear him read from the books he brings before they can borrow them. ...

“I started out with 70 books, and now I have a collection of more than 4,800,” said Mr. Soriano, 36, a primary school teacher who lives in a small house here with his wife and three children, with books piled to the ceilings. ...

On a trip this month into the rutted hills, where about 300 people regularly borrow books from him, he reminisced about a visit to the National Library in the capital, Bogotá, where he was stunned by the building’s immense collection and its Art Deco design.

“I felt so ordinary in Bogotá,” Mr. Soriano said. “My place is here.”

Added Oct. 26: Sylvia on Classical Bookworm points out a similar Bibliomulas program in Venezuela, as well as the Biblioburro blog and this YouTube video shwing Soriano making his rounds:

300th Anniversary of Guru Granth

Sikhs around the world are celebrating the 300th anniversary of the coronoation of the Sikh scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib, as their 11th and eternal Guru. The festivities have featured a procession of one of the oldest manuscripts around India, culminating in a week-long celebration in Punjab at the end of this month, according to the Times of India. (The Times also provides a summary introduction to the Guru Granth and its history.) The event is being marked by public proclamations and readings of Guru Granth around the globe, like this reading in Kangar, Melanesia:

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Tallest book

From Michael Lieberman on Book Patrol:

When the Burj Dubai opens early next year it will it be the world's tallest building.

In the lobby will be a copy of what has to be the world's tallest book.

The 'Burj Dubai Opus' stands 15 feet tall.

Emaar Properties, the developers of the Burj Dubai, have hired luxury publisher Kraken Opus to produce the book. The book will contain plans of the design and construction of the building as well as exclusive content and never-before-seen photographs.

Beside the" lobby" edition there will be a collectors edition and a limited edition offered for sale. There will also be copies that will be auctioned for charity.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Illuminated Manuscript Collection at Hebrew University

The Jerusalem Post highlights the work of Section of Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts at the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University.
The CJA manuscript sleuths have documented more than 1,000 manuscripts, as part of the mission of the Center for Jewish Art founded by Israel Prize-winner Bezalel Narkiss more than 30 years ago to create a virtual museum of Jewish art through the ages that would be accessible to all.
Section head Michal Sternthal notes "There are hardly any surviving Jewish artifacts from the Middle Ages besides illuminated manuscripts. As such, they provide us with important visual history."

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Iconic Scriptures in Flight

The Times of India reports that transportation of 500 worn-out copies of the Guru Granth Sahib from London to India required the lease of an entire airliner in order to pay proper respect to the Sikh scriptures during the transfer:

The 330-seater aircraft carried 500 copies of the Guru Granth Sahib and 32 sevadars who were accompanying the holy scriptures.

Sikhs regard the Guru Granth Sahib as their living Guru and accord it respect accordingly. The books in question were extremely old, with several pages torn. The aim of the management of the Gurudwara Mai Pago in Karol Bagh, which brought the books to India, is to perform the last rites for these books, as would be done for their Guru. They will collect old copies of the holy book from all parts of the world and clean them. Eventually they will be given up in an `agni bhet' as part of the antim sanskar.

AI-112 arrived at the IGI airport at 2.30 am on Thursday and was taken to a special bay where the books were offloaded. All copies were carried out by the sevadars on their heads, as a mark of respect to the books. Since the books cannot be stacked on top of each other, they were placed on 300 seats, with a miximum of one copy atop another, and the other seats were occupied by the sevadars.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Fantastic Private Library

Entrepeneur Jay Walker's private library was featured in a photographic essay in Wired Magazine by Steven Levy.

Nothing quite prepares you for the culture shock of Jay Walker's library. You exit the austere parlor of his New England home and pass through a hallway into the bibliographic equivalent of a Disney ride. Stuffed with landmark tomes and eye-grabbing historical objects—on the walls, on tables, standing on the floor—the room occupies about 3,600 square feet on three mazelike levels. ...

(h/t Michael Lieberman on BookPatrol)

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Multi-lingual Adventist Bible on Tour

The special edition polyglot Bible by the American Bible Society that the Vatican commissioned for commemorative purposes is not the only multi-lingual Bible imbued with denominational symbolism. The Seventh-Day Adventists created a unique Bible in sixty-six languages. Each biblical book is printed in a different language:

The special copy of the Bible features Genesis written in Spanish, Psalms in Chinese and Revelation in Korean. ...

The Bible will travel to six continents and culminate at the next world church congress in Atlanta, Georgia, United States in 2010. ...

The journey, an initiative planned since last year called "Follow the Bible," is intended to rekindle in Adventists around the world the daily need for connection with the Bible. A recent survey of world membership found that less than 50 percent said they regularly studied the Bible.

Adventist leaders from around the world prayed over the Bible (picture) during the church's Annual Council business session in Manila, Philippines, October 11th.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Copying the Koran

Two very interesting looking exhibits at the Asia Society (725 Park Ave, New York, NY) highlight practically all of the themes of iconic books. From the opening lines of the NY Times review:

“Say it!” the angel Gabriel commanded Muhammad, who had been chosen to channel the message of Allah to mankind. “Write it,” the angel might have said, because the words the prophet recited became a book, the Koran. And in the hands of artists over the centuries that book became a devotional object of surpassing beauty.
The article includes a slide show of various elements, tools, and furniture used in Qur'anic calligraphy here.

Information about the exhibit is at the bottom of the article.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Illuminated Books in the 21st Century (4)

It’s not just the Bible producers discussed in my three previous posts (here, here, and here) who are re-imagining the illuminated manuscript for the 21st century. Other publishers employ striking visuals to get their books noticed and their contents read. We’ve already mentioned the lavish photographs illustrating Harun Yahya's Atlas of Creation that has kept this creationist tract out of many recycle bins, as well as the respect that comic books garner by taking traditional codex “book” form (see Cordell Waldron’s comment to the post on Yahya).

New York fractal artist Martin Alberti has also embraced the model of illuminated manuscripts (and the “iconic books” label!). His manifesto declares:

Illuminated manuscripts are the iconic books of our past. A Renaissance of iconic books will be one of the first signs of our Awakening. Iconic books invite us to let go of our egos and open our hearts to God. ...

A moderate book need not be moderate in its Beauty. Moderate books written by people with moderate views should be the best-looking. ...

Iconic books are conversation triggers. “What do you see?” they ask. “And what does it mean?” We are at the dawn of a Great Conversation.

To create iconic books and believe that they can really make a difference is what it means for people in the book world to "Give the impossible a go!" as Tony Blair likes to say.

Alberti’s motives echo precisely those behind the St. John's Bible and the Bible Illuminated. His texts, though, are much shorter, such as a speech by Tony Blair on “Faith and Globalization.” Each double-page spread contains only twenty to sixty words of text, juxtaposed with full-page fractal images. Single words and word-fragments in a wild array of fonts catch and focus attention. The small volume is hard bound in a blue velour cover with gold lettering, and comes inside a red-velour zippered pouch with “.Christ” stitched on it. As Mr. Alberti wrote to me, “In this age of information overload, a short book has the best chance of getting read and having maximum impact.” He produces limited-edition works on commission. Like Yahya, he puts words in a form that is hard to ignore.

Even some digital media advocates have been infected with nostalgia for illuminated manuscripts. According to Christ Meade, if:book london is launching a joint project with the Arts Council of England

to create an illuminated book online, containing the poetry of William Blake, new writing, art and song inspired by Blake’s work, and the voices of many readers as they debate some of Blake’s key concerns and their relevance in the digital age. ...

Songs of Imagination & Digitisation will involve working with a range of those people, commissioning new writing and art, providing incentives for new voices to submit work and for readers to give us their ideas. We will mingle film, text and image, reader response and author interviews – and once we’ve gathered enough ingredients on our blog we hope to transmute them into something that feels like a proper, substantial, networked book. ...

We want the Songs to be a springboard into all kinds of reading.

Meade’s rhetoric speaks of “inspiration” at both personal and public levels, very similar to the language of Alberti and the people behind the St. John’s Bible and the Bible Illuminated. Once again, though the aesthetic paradigms to which they subscribe and the media they use diverge sharply, the same underlying model (the medieval illuminated manuscript) and motivations (personal transformation and public appeal) seem to be fueling quite a trend. I hesitate, though, to call it a “new” trend: people have been doing similar things for similar reasons for a very long time and I see little evidence to support the notion that modern print culture every suppressed this impulse (but for the contrary view, see the publicity for this book on Alberti’s website).

Monday, October 6, 2008

Unusual Bibles by Mainstream Bible Publishers

Two major Bible publishers have unveiled efforts to produce very unusual and limited editions. USA Today reports that

To mark the 30th anniversary of the NIV, which has sold 300 million copies worldwide, publisher Zondervan launches a campaign today to create the unique edition, which will include its 31,173 verses, each handwritten by a different person.

A huge blue RV with the logo "BibleAcrossAmerica.com" splashed on its side and "Inspiration at every turn" on its back takes off on a five-month journey bringing "writing stations" to 90 stops in 44 states at churches, landmarks and popular settings such as NASCAR races.

So to celebrate one of the greatest successes of mass printing and marketing, they create the precise opposite, a unique manuscript! Of course, the marketing potential in both the unique copy and mass reproduction are not being ignored:
A photo facsimile of all the verses will be compiled and published in time for Christmas 2009; the index will list each participant's name and the number of the verse he or she copied.

One set of originals will be bound and offered to the Smithsonian. The second set, also bound, will be auctioned to benefit the International Bible Society, which holds the NIV copyright and is co-sponsoring the project with Zondervan.

(ht Andrew McTyre and Kevin Edgecomb)

Meanwhile, the American Bible Society has produced a limited edition polyglot Bible for use by the Vatican:

Developed in honor of the upcoming Synod of Catholic Bishops, which is themed The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church, the production of the Biblia Polyglotta heralds the beginning of a new relationship between the American Bible Society and the Holy See and is the result of an historic collaboration between the American Bible Society and the papacy. The Biblia Polyglotta bears the seals of the Vatican and the American Bible Society. ...

the Biblia Polyglotta features the Old Testament in five languages: Hebrew/Aramaic, Greek, Latin, English and Spanish; and the New Testament in four languages: Greek, Latin, English and Spanish.

One of the things highlighted in the working document for the Synod of Bishops is the importance of Lectio Divina within the Catholic tradition. Lectio Divina, a dynamic centuries-old method for Bible reading and reflection, is an integral part of the devotional life of the Catholic Church. The American Bible Society currently conducts Lectio Divina workshops and training sessions in Catholic parishes around the country.

The 3200 page Bible took biblical scholars at the American Bible Society over a year-and-a-half to complete. Dedicated to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, the leather-bound volume is embellished with gold and silver titles. Brazilian artist Claudio Pastro, a specialist in Sacred Art, provided the artwork.

All those attending the Synod will receive copies of this Bible. An additional one thousand copies of the Biblia Polyglotta will become the official biblical gift of the Holy See to heads of state and other dignitaries.

The unique commemorative edition has a very old history in Bible production. Both these efforts show it is alive and well. But it is also very interesting to see both publishers showing interest in the performative dimension of the text, whether the hand writing of the verses or the meditative reading/chanting through lectio divina. This is a big change for these very text-centered organizations!

Illuminated Bibles in the 21st Century (3)

My previous posts on two current “illuminated Bible” projects require some comparison and analysis. Despite their very different looks and aesthetic choices, the St. John’s Bible and the Bible Illuminated turn out to be quite similar in their inspirations, motivations, and goals. They both intentionally evoke and reproduce the tradition of medieval illuminated bibles in twenty-first century guise. Both employ modern aesthetic sensibilities, though in different registers—the Bible Illuminated uses cutting-edge mass-market sensibilities while the SJB aims more for art museum culture. Both projects aim to get more people reading the Bible, just as other recent graphic-intensive bibles do, but both clearly also aim for an audience that is culturally sophisticated.

Several companion volumes issued by St. John’s publishing house, Liturgical Press, explain the motives behind the SJB. Christopher Calderhead’s Illuminating the Word: The Making of the Saint Johns Bible (Collegeville: Order of Saint Benedict, 2005) provides detailed descriptions of the calligraphers and their work, and also interviews with the major figures behind the project at St. John’s. Susan Sink’s The Art of the Saint John’s Bible: A Reader’s Guide to Pentateuch, Psalms, Gospels, and Acts (Collegeville: Order of St. Benedict, 2007) instructs readers on using the SJB for devotional study and meditation.

Calderhead’s interviews reveal two different goals motivating the Abbey and University to embrace this project. The first is the traditional goal of Christian outreach, according to Abbot John Klassen and several others.
“He foresaw the Bible moving to exhibitions around the country, engaging people, especially the young, asking them to encounter the Scriptures in a new form” (p. 22).

The second is more internal to the Abbey and to the Benedictine tradition. Calderhead says Klassen
“saw The Saint John’s Bible as a way of sharing the Scriptures in a classic Benedictine way: to encourage lectio divina, the slow, meditative monastic method of reading the Bible, on a mass scale. That’s what he’d like to see Saint John’s do with its new Bible; that’s what he’d like to see happen in the broader world, when people see the book and pore over it” (ibid).

The Abbot is well aware of its iconic potential. He told Calderhead:
“‘It is a retrieval of the Catholic imagination with scripture. The Word becomes sacramental. It is not just a text. It is like the Eucharist: a visual image of the Word’” (p. 21).

Carol Marrin, director of the Bible project, echoed the Abbot in claiming that one of the project goals is to
“revive tradition. ... She explained: ‘Monasteries of the Middle Ages were places where books were made. In some periods of history they were the only centers of book production.’ ... The Saint John’s Bible revives the link between monastic communities and the hand-made book” (p. 28).

The website of IlluminatedWorld, publisher of The Bible Illuminated, denies a “religious agenda,” but that is quickly belied by the value judgments in the surrounding sentences. Its mission is to:
introduce today’s audience to a revolutionary contemporary Bible, one that encourages dialogue and is culturally relevant, readily accessible and easily digestible for any reader regardless of religious, economic, racial or social background.

Illuminated World does not support or endorse any specific religion. We have no religious agenda. It is simply meant to be a unique vehicle for reacquainting today’s reader with the most important historical text ever written and capture the greatest story ever told as no one has seen it in 2000 years.

Elsewhere, the culture of corporate advertising shapes the self-description: founder Dag Söderberg’s “vision from the beginning was to re-brand the Bible for a consumer audience but remain true to the text.”

Despite the tradition of medieval illuminated Bibles employed both rhetorically and in design elements (see my previous post), the website critiques “traditional” Bibles and other “historical books.” The project founders “began pondering if the traditional format or design turned people off. They realized there was a huge opportunity to re-design or illuminate these types of old texts.”

So like the SJB, the Illuminated Bible uses striking visuals to gain more readers for the Christian Bible. Does it also fulfill more personal, internal goals for its designer(s)? The publicity is coy about personal motives, describing Söderberg as “a spiritual but not particularly religious individual.” Yet his biography—successful advertising executive who retires from the business and devotes himself to Bible publishing—suggests a personal engagement that the publicity refuses to make explicit. His hopes for others’ reactions to the project hint at a personal drive: “The goal is to drive an emotional reaction and get people to think, discuss and share. It’s meant to trigger bigger moral questions.”

It seems to me that these very contemporary productions, the Saint Johns Bible and the Bible Illuminated, therefore reproduce creatively not only the conceptual form of illuminated manuscripts but also their motivations. The medieval monks who labored over their parchments also aimed to bring fame and glory (if not readers) to the scripture as well as work out their own salvation in the process. Under other language and art, the goals and motivations remain the same.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Astronaut's Diary Containing Sabbath Prayer On Display

Yahoo News is running an AP story about the public display of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon's diary. Ramon and his fellow astronauts died in the shuttle Columbia's Feb 1, 2003, re-entry disaster and his diary was one of the few recognizable artifacts retrieved from the scattered wreckage.

The display of the diary is of interest to the Iconic Books project for the religious dimension foregrounded in the article. The survival of 37 pages of the diary through the explosion, 37-mile fall, and exposure to the elements is described as "miraculous" and the displayed contents include the Sabbath Kiddush prayer, and the reader might be reminded of the fortitude so often attributed to religious texts.

A little over two months after the shuttle explosion, NASA searchers found 37 pages from Ramon's diary, wet and crumpled, in a field just outside the U.S. town of Palestine, Texas. The diary survived extreme heat in the explosion, extreme atmospheric cold, and then "was attacked by microorganisms and insects" in the field where it fell, said museum curator Yigal Zalmona.

"It's almost a miracle that it survived - it's incredible," Zalmona said. There is "no rational explanation" for how it was recovered when most of the shuttle was not, he said.

[. . .]

Two pages will be displayed. One contains notes written by Ramon, and the other is a copy of the Kiddush prayer, a blessing over wine that Jews recite on the Sabbath. Zalmona said Ramon copied the prayer into his diary so he could recite it on the space shuttle and have the blessing broadcast to Earth.
The diary shares the display with a number of other iconic texts, each with its own place in history.

The diary is being displayed as part of a larger exhibit of famous documents from Israel's history, held to mark the country's 60th anniversary this year. Also on display will be Israel's 1948 declaration of independence, the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan and a bloodstained sheet of paper with lyrics to a peace anthem that was carried by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the time of his assassination in 1995.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Illuminated Bibles in the 21st Century (2)

This summer, I had the opportunity to spend several days at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN. I went there to see the St. John’s Bible, an ongoing project to produce the first Bible in many centuries to be completely hand-written and illuminated by professional calligraphers. St John’s Abbey sponsors the project though the actual work is being carried out in Wales by a team of calligraphers led by Donald Jackson.

Four of the seven volumes have now been finished and are on sale in facsimile reproductions. The SJB’s illuminations are distinctive in content and contain a mix of styles by different artists, sometimes together in one illustration. They range from highly illustrative medleys (such as the distinctively African Garden of Eden scene) through atmospheric evocations of mood (such as the incipits for Proverbs and Ecclesiastes) to visual celebrations of textuality (such as the Ten Commandments illumination or the incipit of Matthew that casts Jesus’ genealogy in the form of a menorah). Like the text (which is modern English, the NRSV translation), the illumination art takes mostly modern form while consciously evoking many of the conventions of medieval illuminated manuscripts, such as text emphasized by color, marginal animals (often insects painted very realistically), as well as the style of the hand written letters themselves.

The original pages, however, have not yet been bound together as books. This allows their many illuminated pages to be displayed in traveling exhibitions, as well as at St. John’s. Almost a dozen pages from the newest volume, Wisdom Literature, were on display this summer. The manuscript pages are very striking—more so than the full-size reproduced facsimiles available for sale, as I was able to tell because I could compare them nearly side-by-side in this display. Displayed in museum cases, these manuscript pages work exactly like icons to draw attention to a transcendent reality—in this case, the biblical text itself. Viewing the illuminations made me refer to the text and want to re-read passages again.

St. John’s has produced a bible that combines the qualities of original art, icon and reproducible book—a form that draws attention to unique original in order to generate interest in its limitless reproductions. Its old-fashioned form—hand-written and illuminated parchment—works well to grab attention in the art museum culture of the twenty-first century.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Illuminated Bibles in the 21st Century (1)

The New Testament of The Bible Illuminated is being released next month in the USA (see previous post about the Swedish version). The publishers kindly sent me a review copy which I’ve been leafing through. Here are some initial impressions:

As advertised, the photographs in The Book: New Testament usually succeed in prompting a reaction, whether its a boy holding a gun aimed point blank at the reader with Jesus’ warning about coming violence printed below, or a swimming polar bear to illustrate the theme of hope in Romans, or gut-wrenching views of oil-covered waterfowl and butchered animals to illustrate Revelation.

Dag Söderberg, the Swedish advertising executive behind The Bible Illuminated, does not treat each book the same way. Matthew contains various kinds of pictures tagged with particular verses. Mark, on the other hand, contains only portraits of 20th century celebrities without captions. A list at the end of the gospel identifies each with the charitable work they have done, but their arrangement conveys some fierce ironies: Martin Luther King, Jr., and Angelie Jolie occupy facing pages, as do Princess Diana and Che Guevara, while the Gospel’s incipit page presents a young Muhammed Ali in boxing pose. Luke contains only photographs illustrating the eight Millennium Development Goals adopted by the United Nations. John, by contrast, contains only black-and-white photographs, some captioned by verses but many not.

Perhaps most puzzling are several pages in Acts depicting Dreamhack, “the largest computer festival in the world,” and the blank gazes of young people fixated on digital games. The same scene appears on the inside of the front and back covers. The placement of the pictures in Acts then makes the eerie glare of computer screens appear at beginning, middle, and end of the volume—maybe an ironic contrast between the deadening effect of electronic media and the “living” word?

Though the look and feel of The Book: New Testament amply fulfills my expectations of the aesthetic and production values that an ad executive brings to Bible publishing, the title of the two-volume series, The Bible Illuminated, places the work within a very old tradition. Once you start looking for it, the heritage of medieval illuminated manuscripts can be recognized in various ways, such as the use of incipit pages and the use of boxed verses or yellow highlights for emphases. Despite appearances, then, the The Book: New Testament does not attempt a radical aesthetic innovation in bible publishing but rather consciously updates an ancient and venerable tradition with new production values and methods.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Rosetta Disk for long-term language backup

The folks at the Long Now Foundation have unveiled this 3-inch Rosetta Disk. Shown is the back with a "teaser" in eight different languages announcing: “Languages of the World: This is an archive of over 1,500 human languages assembled in the year 02008 C.E. Magnify 1,000 times to find over 13,000 pages of language documentation.”

The other side, under a glass sphere, is pure nickel etched with 13,500 pages of linguistic data:
The Rosetta disk is not digital. The pages are analog “human-readable” scans of scripts, text, and diagrams. Among the 13,500 scanned pages are 1,500 different language versions of Genesis 1-3, a universal list of the words common for each language, pronunciation guides and so on. Some of the key indexing meta-data for each language section (such as the standard linguistic code number for that language) are displayed in a machine-readable font (OCRb) so that a smart microscope could guide you through this analog trove.

Our hope is that at least one of the eight headline languages can be recovered in 1,000 years. But even without reading, a person might guess there are small things to see in this disk.

The motivation for the project: long-term backup!
Following the archiving principle of LOCKS (Lots of Copies Keep ‘em Safe) we would replicate the disk promiscuously and distribute them around the world with built in magnifiers. This project in long term thinking would do two things: it would showcase this new long-term storage technology, and it would give the world a minimal backup of human languages.

I applaud the effort to think long-term about the problem of information (and language) retrieval. I've already had reason to comment here about the rapid decay of electronic data. I'm amused, though, that the text chosen to render in 1,500 languages turned out to be the beginning of the Bible, Genesis 1-3. The Rosetta Disk's creators explain that they chose Gen 1-3 "since it was most likely already translated into all languages already." (Actually, they would have found that the New Testament has been translated into even more languages than the Hebrew Bible, since Christian translators tend to make the NT the highest priority in their work.)

Despite their entirely secular, linguistic goals, the Rosetta project thus reproduces part of the most iconic text in Western culture into yet another iconic form, and in the cause of durability, which the Bible by its ancient origins itself symbolizes.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Funeral for Torah Scrolls

Thanks to Kevin Edgecomb for his comment pointing out this article in Arutz Sheva on a series of arson fires in Israel that target synagogue arks and their torah scrolls. Destruction of torah scrolls has elicited outrage and concern, and also a ritual response:

A fire in a Bnei Brak synagogue on Wednesday afternoon caused severe damage to the Holy Ark and burned four Torah scrolls beyond repair.

... The rabbis decided that the traditional mourning procession and burial ceremony for the burnt Torah scrolls will be held Friday. The procession will leave the targeted synagogue, HaRishonim, in the morning and traverse the streets of Bnei Brak until reaching the municipal cemetery, where the scrolls will be interred.

Funerals for scriptures are not unique to Jewish tradition: Sikhs and some Muslims have similar rites, and popular Christian concern to bury worn-out Bibles points in the same direction. Kristina Myrvold of the University of Lund is editing a collection of essays on the ritual disposal of scriptures in various traditions. I'm looking forward to reading it!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Torah Scroll at Samaritan Passover

Video of this year's Passover celebration by the Samaritans shows the carrying and display of the Torah scroll, similar to Jewish customs. One difference is that the person holding the scroll is the high priest, an office that fell into disuse in Judaism after 70 CE.

A major difference between Samaritan and Jewish practices that is not displayed here is that the Samaritans read Torah aloud from a codex-bound Pentateuch, rather than from the scroll itself (see Benyamim Tsedaka, “Who are the Samaritans?”).

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Song of a Torah Scroll

This video presents the song, "Place Where I Belong," written and performed by Abie Rotenberg, and illustrated with still images. The song's lyrics are notable because they voice the experiences and feelings of a Torah scroll in the first person, from its creation by a scribe in Kiev and regular use there in a "shull" to its eventual resting place in an American museum. The song expresses the sentiment that a museum is not the proper place for a Sefer Torah. It should rather be in regular use in a synagogue.

By its personification of the scroll as the voice of the song, the song expresses poignantly a very common feeling that not only the Torah but all books "live," but only by being read and used. This feeling contributes to their problematic nature as museum displays, which we've commented on before.

Friday, July 25, 2008

More Ten Commandments monuments

As controversy and court cases continue to swirl around when and under what circumstances decalogues can appear on public property in the U.S. (see Associate Press, Associated Press), many advocates of monuments to the Ten Commandments have moved or erected them on private property, often as a direct result of the controversies (see Project Moses, World Net Daily). But this new monument on Highway 2 in Bimidji, Minnesota, seems to have arisen from more personal reflections, as reported in the Bemidji Pioneer.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Burning Books by Fishburn

Palgrave Macmillan has released Burning Books by Matthew Fishburn. John Sutherland reviews the book in the Telegraph:

Matthew Fishburn's fascinating chronicle follows ritual book-burning through the ages, from the Old Testament's Jeremiah to those latter-day descendants of the venerable Caliph, who burnt The Satanic Verses in Bradford in January 1989 (warming the publisher's hearts in the process - nothing gets a book headlines faster than angry flames licking round it).

Sutherland comments that book burning "doesn't feel illiberal: it feels blasphemous." Yes, that's what we've been trying to point out ...

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Book Arts at SU

Some local book arts news from Syracuse University libraries:

Book Arts exhibition on Bird Library sixth floor
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
This new exhibition in the hall exhibit case on the sixth floor of E.S. Bird library features an exploration of the book by students in Foundation Bookmaking (FND 116) and Hand Paper Print/Book workshop (PRT 552) in the College of Visual and Performing Arts. The exhibition is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday through August 21.

During the first 2008 summer session, students in the Foundation Bookmaking class taught by Assistant Prof. Chris Wildrick learned to make books that are image-intensive from both art and design points of view. Students learned to create their own books using several book-binding techniques and approaches, including accordions and scrolls, pamphlet bindings, Japanese bindings, coptic bindings, altered books, and interactive books. The class investigated how books are structured, both within one single page and from page to page throughout the book. They also learned about digital layout techniques using InDesign as well as the options available for online self-publishing. Students in the class were drawn from diverse areas of the University, and came with a wide range of interests, experience, and skills.

One day in the month of April, the book artists of PRT 552, the book arts class in the College of Visual and Performing Arts taught by Associate Professor Holly Greenberg, were told to make an exchange of books with the sole requirement that they fit inside a wooden box. The students created two separate exchanges of eight books apiece, totaling sixteen books in all. In the end the groups came up with two greatly diverse exchanges: “Dirt,” based upon the concept of what things we may want to keep hidden or secret, and “Home,” which played off the theme of rooms in a house and associations made with the space. All students were encouraged to use a variety of binding techniques and materials, as well as raise the question of “what is a book?” Both groups collaborated with the PRT 552 teaching assistant on the exterior design of their boxes.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Virtual shelves in virtual bookstore

As one more instance of virtual books imitating physical books as much as possible, Zoomii Books offers access to Amazon's books through an interface that looks like books on bookstore shelves. Sebastian Mary on if:book comments:

It's the most bookshop-like experience I've encountered online. Within seconds I'd been reminded of several books I've been meaning to read. ...

It's debatable, though, whether this kind of heavily-mediated pseudo-serendipity, while a pleasant change from the messy Amazon experience, isn't one metaphor too far. After all, how 'serendipitous' are the book thumbnails I find on its digitally-rendered 'shelves'?

From my perspective, this is another reminder that the iconicity of books has spread to social institutions, not just libraries and museums, but also bookstores. So as they become aware of it, web retailers will of course try to assimilate it and capitalize on it.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Eternal Books

Though I share the Bibliophile Bullpen’s skepticism about Microsoft’s repeated claims that e-media will soon replace print media, the ancient historian in me has to take issue with her assertion that “PRINT is the longest lived media humanity has managed to create.”

Leaving aside media such as stones and metals too expensive for anything but monumental or ritual use, the honor for most durable written media must go to the clay tablet—the chief carrier of cuneiform script and the literatures of Mesopotamian and surrounding cultures for more than 2,000 years. Though easily broken, a fired ceramic tablet is otherwise virtually immune to the ravages of time. As a result, more documentation of daily life in second and first millennium B.C.E. Mesopotamia has survived than of most subsequent cultures who switched to using ink on parchment or papyrus, which were more convenient but much less durable.

In fact, changes in written media over the five-thousand-year history of writing have always tended towards greater impermanence. From clay tablets to parchment to papyrus (admittedly in use in Egypt as early as cuneiform tablets in Mesopotamia) to rag paper to wood-pulp paper and now to electronic media, the materials have become easier to use but less and less permanent.

Nevertheless, complaints about electronic media’s impermanence and mutability points to an important aspect of the book’s iconic status: texts are supposed to preserve their contents for the future. They represent an author’s hopes for immortality, a nation’s desire for permanence, a religion’s claim to eternal truth. Conscious of our heritage from previous generations, we cherish old texts as relics that connect us to the past. Conscious of our own mortality, we hope that “our” books will live on indefinitely.

The traditional codex makes that realistically possible and verifiably true of many texts. Electronic media show no sign of being able to offer the same hope.

Bible Recycling

Susan Olasky in World Magazine asks:

What should you do with old or damaged Bibles you no longer need? Michigan-based Christian Resources International (CRI) suggests several ways to put them to use. Operation Bare Your Bookshelf allows you to send used Bibles in good condition to people who need them overseas.

CRI is responding to what seems to be a widely felt need, at least as evidenced by the remarkable number of websites providing advice on disposing of Bibles: Wikihow, Answerbag, Everything2, Yahoo, Allexperts, Ehow, and Catholic Forum. Since unlike Jewish, Muslim and Sikh traditions, Christian denominations for the most part have no prescribed teachings on Bible disposal, this wide-spread concern may be produced by the obvious, if usually implicit, analogy between Christianity's iconic book and other sacred objects and/or by the influence of prominent media stories about controversies over the treatment of scriptures of other religious traditions.

Kindle: Smoldering in the Uncanny Valley?

Brian Cassidy on Book Patrol wonders if the Kindle e-book reader is too good to be readily acceptible:
Perhaps some of the resistance among bookaholics to e-readers such as the Kindle was due in part to a kind of biblio-version of The Uncanny Valley:

The uncanny valley is a hypothesis that when robots and other facsimiles of humans look and act almost, but not entirely, like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. (Wikipedia)

Is the Kindle - in the words of this classic bit from 30 Rock - just a bit too much "Tom Hanks in Polar Express" and not enough "R2-D2"?

On this blog, we might rephrase this observation to wonder: will resistence to e-books increase, rather than decrease, the more they assume an iconic book's form? Our observations to date suggest that it will depend on the kind of book in question, and to what extent the e-application might be perceived as endangering its iconic status (or possibly even enhancing it).

iTouch in a Book

Charlie Sorrell on Wired explains and shows how to make an iPod Touch look and feel like "a real book." He explains his motive:

Imagine seeing an attractive girl (or boy) sitting outside a pavement café, drinking an espresso, smoking a Gauloise and reading a tatty paperback. It's a romantic image which is shattered when you swap the book for a PDA. I decided to disguise my iPod as a book, and if that wasn't pretentious enough, I put it in a modded Moleskine, the notebook of choice for fops and dandies the world over.

Chris Meade on if:book describes this as "Stationary fetishism and gadget love meet in perfect union." It could equally well be described as "Gadget fetishism meets stationary love." As always when it comes to books and technology, it's all in the eye of the beholder. The question is, are the eyes of most beholders changing as rapidly as the technology? The evidence for the continuing iconicity of books suggests not ...

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Doctor Who Among the Books

Chris Meade on if:book points out that "Doctor Who, Britain's favourite time traveller, is trapped on a gigantic planet-sized library on BBC 1 this week. Electronic librarians oversee rows of very conventional looking dusty tomes and death lurks in the shadows. The Doctor has already told us how, despite all the advances in technology, future life forms still love nothing better than the smell and feel of a proper old book."

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Decorating with Books

Michael Lieberman of BookPatrol brings to our attention Book Decor, "specializing in designer leather-bound books." Under the heading, "Decorating a Home Library," decorative book dealer Leni Leith explains:

Our Danish printed, European imported books are sold specifically with interior design in mind. Many people feel that it's silly to purchase books for pure decorative value. While we certainly understand this, we also savor the opportunity to change the mind of such individuals! Our books are so beautiful on the outside that their interior ceases to be important. What's more, they are available for purchase by the foot as well as the yard. In other words, no more spending hours in used bookstores looking for space fillers. At Book Décor, this process takes a matter of seconds!

Lieberman points out that Book Decor is not the first to aim at this market: the Strand bookstore in New York has sold decorator collections of books by the foot for years.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

New Testaments Burned in Israel

Several news outlets are reporting on an incident in Israel in which New Testaments were burned about two weeks ago. According to CNN's coverage, the deputy mayor of Or-Yehuda collected them and when he was not present, someone set them on fire:
News accounts in Israel have quoted Uzi Aharon, the deputy mayor of Or-Yehuda, as saying he organized students who burned several hundred copies of the New Testament. The deputy mayor gave interviews to Israeli radio and television stations after word of the incident surfaced about two weeks ago.

Soon he was talking with Russian, Italian and French television stations, "explaining to their highly offended audiences back home how he had not meant for the Bibles to be burned, and trying to undo the damage caused by the news (and photographs) of Jews burning New Testaments," The Jerusalem Post reported.

Aharon told CNN on Wednesday that he collected New Testaments and other "Messianic propaganda" that had been handed out in the city but that he did not plan or organize a burning. Instead, he said, three teenagers set fire to a pile of New Testaments while he was not present. Once he learned what was going on, he said, he stopped the burning.

[. . .]

About 200 New Testaments were burned, Aharon said, but he saved another 200.

His goal was to stop attempts to distribute Christian literature in the city, he said.

[. . .]

Myers said his complaint will ask the authorities to investigate possible violations of two Israeli laws. One forbids the destruction or desecration of any religious icon or item that a group holds sacred. Another bans people from speaking publicly in a way that offends or humiliates a certain religion.

Both laws are meant to prevent people from inciting religious violence, he said.
This incident (like the one involving a Qur'an this blog noted on May 17), the laws that pertain to it, and the responses to it continue to demonstrate that violence against books is understood by all parties involved as being comparable to violence against people and/or ideas and that violence against a book can quickly lead to other forms of conflict.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Word Art & Book Art

Michael Lieberman on BookPatrol points out:

The current issue of ArtAsiaPacific features an in depth look at artists who employ text in their work.

Articles include:

-A great piece on contemporary calligraphy in China, "Square Words, Round Paradigms" by Eric Wear.

-A look at Yoko Ono's embrace of online communities (Ono averages 200 new 'friends' on MySpace a day) by HG Masters.

-Gregory Galligan's looks at Islamic text-based art in his piece, "Architecture in Script: From Without Boundaries to Archive Fever," and includes Shirin Neshat whose iconic work appears above.

Also in this issue is Eliza Gluckman's profile of Sharmini Pereira and her publishing imprint, Raking Leaves, which focuses exclusively on artists using the printed book as the medium.