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, January 29, 2008

Free information, expensive books

Sotheby's sale of the Magna Carta last month led James Gleick the NYTimes Magazine to meditate insightfully in on the diverging value of information vis-a-vis physical documents and books:

Twenty-one million is, by far, the most ever paid for a page of text, and therein lies a paradox: Information is now cheaper than ever and also more expensive. Mostly, of course, information is practically free, easier to store and faster to spread than our parents imagined possible.

... The value of the particular item sold at Sotheby’s eight centuries later is entirely different. It’s a kind of illusion. We can call it magical value as opposed to meaningful value. It’s like the value acquired by one baseball when Bobby Thomson batted it out of the Polo Grounds. A physical object becomes desirable, precious, almost holy, by common consensus, on account of a history — a story — that is attached to it. (If it turns out you’ve got the wrong baseball, the value vanishes just as magically.)

... In advance of the sale, Sotheby’s called Magna Carta “a lamp in the darkness, a glowing talisman of our human condition, a sacred icon of our human history.” Just so. It’s magic. Religious relics, like the Shroud of Turin, gleam invisibly with the same magic. On a smaller scale so do autographs, coins, rare photographs, Stradivari violins (unless you think you can recognize the tonal quality of 300-year-old wood) and clothing off the backs of celebrities, like the spare wedding dress (ivory silk taffeta) that Diana might have worn but didn’t (2005, $175,000).

... But the growth in the ranks of the superrich does not explain the hypertrophy in magical value. Just when digital reproduction makes it possible to create a “Rembrandt” good enough to fool the eye, the “real” Rembrandt becomes more expensive than ever. Why? Because the same free flow that makes information cheap and reproducible helps us treasure the sight of information that is not. A story gains power from its attachment, however tenuous, to a physical object. The object gains power from the story. The abstract version may flash by on a screen, but the worn parchment and the fading ink make us pause. The extreme of scarcity is intensified by the extreme of ubiquity.

Michael Lieberman of BookPatrol connects Glieck's observations to recent news that books sales, both on the internet and in stores, are up substantially around the world. He comments:

So while the race is on to free the content from the book, the actual book itself, the original house for the content, becomes in fact more desirable.

Precisely. Despite the electronic revolution in information, the iconic value of books in general, and of relic books and texts in particular, has never been higher.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Soundprint Radio "Who Needs Libraries?"

"Books to me were magical physical objects, as well as magical literary ones."

Soundprint Radio's Lisa Simeone's sense that books have a magical quality is one that I think this 'blog's users are pretty familiar with. Last weekend's broadcast "Who Needs Libraries?" is not specifically about scripture, but it does contain a number of points that might be of interest regarding iconic books, including the host's childhood impressions of the smell and magic of books and and a great description of the shrine-like Folger Shakespeare Library vault (complete with stained glass windows, church architecture, a crypt, and 79 copies of the iconic First Folio). The program goes on to consider the challenges posed to libraries in an age of digitization, Google, and Internet books.

The audio program may be streamed through RealPlayer, and the links for RealPlayer are provided on the Soundprint site linked above.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Review of People of the Book

Jeremy Dibbell, of PhiloBiblos, writes a beautiful review of Geraldine Brooks new novel, People of the Book (Viking, 2008). The novel features the 14th-century Sarajevo Haggadah, interweaving its history into the contemporary plot. Dibbell comments:

There's a message here for those of us who study books as artifacts - there are stories there, real people's stories, and although they may be impossible to get at really, we should think of them.

As Hanna is preparing her essay about the Haggadah to accompany the exhibition catalogue, Brooks has her say "I wanted to give a sense of the people of the book, the different hands that had made it, used it, protected it. I wanted it to be a gripping narrative, even suspenseful" (pp. 264-265).

Saturday, January 19, 2008

PhD program in "Texts, Contexts, Cultures"

Mark Bertrand, on Bible Design & Binding, points out a new set of PhD scholarships in Ireland:

"Dr Crawford Gribben, who is the Long Room Hub Senior Lecturer in Early Modern Print Culture at Trinity College in Dublin -- as well as a reader of this blog -- e-mailed me with some news that will be of interest to academics in the audience. He's directing a new PhD program at Trinity College and has twelve fully-funded scholarships to award. Here are the details:

12 fully-funded 4-year PhD scholarships are available for Arts and Humanities research in Trinity College Dublin

A new interdisciplinary and inter-institutional PhD pathway for research in Arts and Humanities has been launched by Trinity College Dublin in conjunction with NUI Galway and University College Cork. 12 four-year scholarships of fees plus €16,000 per annum are available for those who wish to pursue this pathway as students of Trinity College Dublin. Other scholarships are being offered by NUI Galway and University College Cork. The scholarship competition at Trinity College Dublin is open to both EU and non-EU applicants. The closing date for entry is 1 March 2008.

Texts, Contexts, Cultures has been designed to prepare students for life in academia – and beyond. First-year students will develop their research through multi-institutional training elements in the pathway's core themes – History of the Book, Imaging Ireland and Renaissance intellectual history – much of which training will be delivered through audiovisual and online networks. Research will be supervised by multi-institutional scholarly panels. Students will also be provided with the opportunity for work placement in the knowledge economy sector.

Dr John Hegarty, Provost of Trinity College Dublin, commented that the Texts, Contexts, Cultures pathway "represents an exciting new beginning for higher education in Ireland and for higher education itself."

Full details can be found on www.textscontextscultures.ie . All enquiries should be directed to Dr Crawford Gribben, the Director of Texts, Contexts, Cultures at Trinity College Dublin (crawford.gribben@tcd.ie).

Dr. Gribben teaches a course focusing on Renaissance Bibles, including their design and binding! There's a PDF course description online that gives a flavor -- "Group exercises will include the preparation of an online annotated edition of part of an individual Biblical book, which edition will compare the forms and contents of
various early modern texts, translations and multimedia receptions"."

Friday, January 18, 2008

Bullet in My Breast Pocket

From the early standup of Woody Allen:

Years ago, my mother gave me a bullet...a bullet, and I put it in my breast pocket. Two years after that, I was walking down the street, when a berserk evangelist heaved a Gideon bible out a hotel room window, hitting me in the chest. Bible would have gone through my heart if it wasn't for the bullet.

For contemporary manifestations of the Bible/bullet scenario, see Cordell's previous post.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Warehousing Books

Some time ago, the Guardian reported on the British Library's construction of a warehouse to house surplus volumes. " The British Library's UK national collection is currently expanding at the rate of 12.5 kilometres of shelf space a year, and somewhere has to be found to put it all." The warehouse, which will provide "262 linear kilometres of high-density, fully automated storage in a low-oxygen environment ... is being meticulously constructed to house things that no one wants."

Geoff Manaugh, writing on BldgBlog, comments that this warehouse and others like it being built by Oxford and Cambridge "aren't libraries, of course; they're stockpiles. Text bunkers. ... No matter if no one actually visits these places; they're our era's equivalent of pharaonic tombs. They're time capsules." Elsewhere he notes the religious influence on library construction: " Interesting, though, that religious beliefs could affect both the shape and the very existence of libraries."

Yes, but what is this religion that values books by the kilometer?