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, March 25, 2008

The UnIconic Book

Paul Collins in Slate Magazine asks “Why won’t phone books die?” The question was prompted by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates’ claim that “Yellow Page usage among people, say, below 50, will drop to zero—or near zero—over the next five years” (Bill Gates: Reading to go "completely online"). Collins counters with industry figures:

Printed phone books are a maturing industry, with only about six in 10 businesses and individuals still regularly relying on them. Yet even as directories hemorrhage content to the Web and to unlisted cell numbers, enough oldsters—those, say, who still recall physically dialing numbers in a rotary motion—continue using them enough to keep profits rolling in.

The phone book’s physical and economic ubiquity over the past century is undeniable:

The humble phone book spent the 20th century as the prince of print jobs. When AT&T gave all 2,400 local editions the same bicentennial-commemorative cover, the resulting run of 187 million copies probably became the most-reproduced book cover of all time. ... The phone book is the one book guaranteed to be present in every household, no matter how little else the occupants read. Even in a vacant apartment, you'll still find old phone books in the kitchen cabinet. ... Last year, according to the industry group the Yellow Pages Association, approximately 615 million directories were printed in the United States alone, generating revenues of $13.9 billion. Some quick math tells me that's more than $22 in revenue per copy. And, what's more, those revenue figures are growing.

By one meaning of the word “iconic,” people’s instant recognition of phone books by their size, shape and color as well as their ubiquity should make them a paradigmatic “iconic book.” But Collins points out:

Yet the phone book's ubiquity has given it an invisibility. ... despite being the most popular printed work ever, there's never been a single scholarly monograph on the phone book.

Those observations go to the heart of what makes a book iconic. It is ritual. By “ritual,” I mean practices that draw attention to books and makes people conscious of how they are using and reading them (applying the ritual theory of Jonathan Z. Smith). Religious processions with scriptures, political oath ceremonies, and sales of textual amulets all ritualize the physical form and image of books or other texts. But people also ritualize books—that is, they draw sustained and conscious attention to them—by interpreting their meaning (in scholarly monographs, among many other media) and also by performing the text through recitations, songs, art, theater, and film. People in different cultures, times and place ritualize different books to different degrees along each of these three dimensions.

Phone books, however, are ritualized in none of their dimensions. Not only has their semantic form and cultural significance remain uninterpreted, but the idea of “performing” their text or contents is ludicrous. As to their physical form, no one protests if they are burned, mutilated, or otherwise destroyed (unless it is out of concern for environmental impact, which as Collins notes must be considerable). By the analysis we’re employing here, phone books are the most uniconic of books.

Thinking about such uniconic books lets us nuance our theories. For one thing, I need to ditch my simple definition of an iconic book as “a book you can recognize from fifty feet away.” Phone books, especially Yellow Pages, can easily be recognized at a distance just as bibles can, but that characteristic has not endowed them with cultural worth and significance.

Uniconic books may also help us grasp the likely effects of transforming texts into digital media. To the degree that a book simply serves as an information source, like the phone book does, it can be replaced by computer searches without readers feeling any loss. That does not mean, however, that “reading will go completely online,” as Bill Gates maintains. To the degree that people ritualize books and other texts along the iconic dimension, that is, to the degree that they pay conscious attention to how they look and feel, how they carry them and their own posture as they read them, such iconic books will remain major features of human cultures.

That is not to say that iconic texts won’t be adapted to new media. I think biblical texts were digitized and marketed in electronically searchable forms sooner than phone books, and elicited no complaints from the devout (at least that I’ve heard). The difference lies rather in the fact that the disappearance of physical bibles is unimaginable, while the eventual disappearance of physical phones books seems very likely. As this blog is documenting, the iconic status of various kinds of books preserves and even enhances their appeal in the age of digital information.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

J. K. Rowling's Tales of the Beedle Bard

J.K. Rowling's Tales of the Beedle Bard began as a book referenced in one of the Harry Potter novels and now exists as seven iconic books. The book purchased by Amazon.com (for just under GBP£2 million/USD$4 million) draws on traditional medieval grimoire imagery, including silver ornaments and and a skull for an appropriately wizardly appearance. Amazon's announcement of its purchase of one of the seven books draws attention to its physical qualities in the second paragraph of the article:
The Tales of Beedle the Bard is extensively illustrated and handwritten by the bard herself--all 157 pages of it. It's bound in brown Moroccan leather and embellished with five hand-chased hallmarked sterling silver ornaments and mounted moonstones.
Bookbinders and collectors might be particularly interested in the large, detailed photos following the Amazon article.

Shema on Golden Amulet

Ha'aretz reports that Austrian archeologists found a 3rd century C.E. silver pendant containing a golden scroll. Engraved on the scroll is the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4) in Hebrew but transliterated in Greek letters: "suma Istrahl adwne elwh adawt n a" with alpha, the first letter in the Greek alphabet used as the numeral one substituting at the end for the Hebrew word echad "one." The pendent had been buried with a two-year old boy in a Roman graveyard at Halbturn. Its discovery provides evidence for Jewish migration to the area in this period or earlier.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Iconic Books in New Double-Issue of Journal

A thematic double-issue (2.2-3) of the journal Postscripts: The Journal of Sacred Texts and Contemporary Worlds has just appeared (despite the cover date of 2006!). It focuses on the social functions of scriptures and features several articles specifically about iconic books. These ideas inform the rationale for this blog, since I edited the special issue and all the blog contributors wrote articles in it. The articles are therefore worth summarizing here to provide readers with a theoretical and comparative framework for the observations that regularly appear in this space. I think each article justifies a separate post:

Parmenter, "The Iconic Book"

Watts, "The Three Dimensions of Scriptures"

Malley, "The Bible in British Folklore"

Krause-Loner, "Be-Witching Scripture"

Waldron compares Homer with Tanakh

Heyman, "Canon Law and the Canon of Scripture"

Pasulka, "Pre-Modern Scriptures in Postmodern Times"

Yoo on Korean Scripture Reading Rituals

Castelli, on Horne's "The Tailenders"

Parmenter, "The Iconic Book"

Dorina Miller Parmenter, in “The Iconic Book: The Image of the Bible in Early Christian Rituals,” Postscripts 2 (2006): 160-189, describes the ritual display and manipulation of Bibles in Greek Orthodox and Protestant traditions. She argues that the Christian scripture functions in a manner precisely analogous to Orthodox icons. Bibles, therefore, are “iconic” in the strict sense—a fact recognized by medieval theologians engaged in the iconoclastic controversies of the seventh-ninth centuries. Dori argues that our recognition of this fact would enable us to better understand the social and religious function of scriptures in other periods and cultures as well. She concludes:

The iconophiles’ justifications for how icons function as mediators of the divine presence can help scholars today understand the veneration that has been shown to the Christian Bible in diverse, yet often unconscious, ways throughout Christian history. This reverence for the Bible as both text (Word) and object (Book) can be found in rituals that treat the book as if it were the divine presence itself and in myths that offer imagery of powerful divine books made available to humans. These rituals and myths linger in contemporary Christian attitudes, ideas, and practices: most overtly in formal liturgical rituals such as Gospel processions, but also in low-church Protestant displays of the Bible. The latter may be less formalized than the former, but they nevertheless manipulate the same image of the divine presence made possible through the medium of the book. (p. 184)

The full article is available in .pdf from Equinox publishing.

Watts, "Three Dimensions of Scriptures"

Failure to consider scriptures’ function as icons has left modern scholars of religion nonplussed by the continuing power and influence of scriptures in twenty-first century culture. In “The Three Dimensions of Scriptures,” Postscripts 2 (2006) 135-159, I build on Dori’s work by asking how the iconic nature of scriptures interacts with their other aspects. I argue that all texts function in three dimensions: iconic, performative and semantic. What distinguishes scriptures from other texts is that religious communities ritualize all three dimensions to a lesser or greater extent. Through ritual, scriptures’ dimensions convey different kinds of social power—the iconic dimension of scriptures conveys legitimacy, the performative dimension conveys inspiration, and the semantic dimension conveys authority. “The explanatory value of recognizing the three dimensions of scriptures does not depend on them being ritualized to the same degree in all times and places: they are not. It rather helps explain the religious tendency towards ritualizing scriptures in all three dimensions. It also provides a means for explaining the social effects of doing so” (p. 148).

The full article in .pdf is available here from Equinox publishing. It was reprinted in Iconic Books and Texts (ed. J. W. Watts; London: Equinox, 2013), 9-32. A pre-print repository version is available here from Syracuse University.

Malley, "Bible in British Folklore"

Brian Malley, in “The Bible in British Folklore,” Postscripts 2 (2006) 241-272, marshals a great deal of archival evidence for the magical use of Bibles in early-modern Britain. He concludes that “the British laity seem to have exploited the Bible as text and artifact in rather different ways than ecclesiastical Christianity.”

The evidence shows that (1) in contrast to the church’s emphasis on the Bible’s meaning, the laity exploited the Bible’s textual and artifactual properties as supernatural means to practical ends; (2) charmers made use of particular biblical (or taken-for-biblical) texts, whereas the Bible generally was used in exorcisms, which seem to have remained the purview of clergy; (3) lay traditions about the Bible seem to have been focused on specific issues, though a general uncertainty about what powers Bibles might have is also indicated. (p. 241)

The full article is available in .pdf from Equinox publishing.

Krause-Loner, "Be-Witching Scripture"

Shawn Krause-Loner, in “Be-Witching Scripture: The Book of Shadows as Scripture within Wicca/Neopagan Witchcraft,” Postscripts 2 (2006) 273-292, describes the history, contents and ritual function of grimoires in Neo-Pagan/Wiccan practice. Through a review of their history, form and uses, he employs the three-dimensional model of scriptures to show that the Book of Shadows functions for practitioners analogously to how other scriptures function for their religious communities. Shawn argues that, despite the fluid and personalized contents of a Book of Shadows, its iconic status is rapidly promoting the textualization and fixation of this primarily ritual tradition. Thus the development of the Book of Shadows in contemporary Neo-Pagan/Wiccan traditions parallels the development and social function of the Torah in ancient Judaism, when it also evolved from an iconic ritual scroll to become a fixed text with authority over much more than just ritual practices. I find this conclusion particularly intriguing, because it shows the value of comparative scriptures studies by illustrating some of the models of scripture formation in antiquity with much more easilty documented contemporary examples.

The full article is available in .pdf from Equinox publishing.

Waldron compares Homer with Tanakh

The remaining essays take up the functional uses of scriptures and other texts in various cultures and contexts. Cordell M. Waldron, in “From Performance to Casket Copy: Comparing the Homeric Epics with the Tanakh as Scriptures,” Postscripts 2 (2006) 190-208, asks why Homeric epics, despite their unrivaled influence in ancient Greek society, did not function as scripture in the way that the Jewish Torah did and does. Though the Homeric poems shaped the imagination of vase painters and even, in Hellenistic times, functioned occasionally as iconic material books, oral performance dominated Greek use of their national epic:

While both Greeks and Jews formulated their national identities around their favored stories, they did so in very different ways. The Jewish Tanakh commands and exemplifies a text-centered community in which that which is written is most important. The Greek Homeric poems portray a world characterized by oral performance in the Iliad’s tearful conversation between Priam and Achilles and the Odyssey’s bards. Writing is suspect; orality is privileged. Greece had no great collection of commentary upon commentary around Homer to compare to the Mishnah and midrash, but neither does ancient Judaism have an Aeschylus or Euripides. (p. 206)

The full article is available in .pdf from Equinox publishing.

Heyman, "Canon Law and the Canon of Scripture"

George Heyman, in “Canon Law and the Canon of Scripture,” Postscripts 2 (2006) 209-225, charts similar developments in Roman Catholic teachings about the Bible on the one hand and canon law on the other. He argues that using the common term “canon” for each betrays their common interest in social control. On the basis of M. B. ter Borg’s theory of canon, Heyman argues:

The success of a canon follows not from the assent or agreement of the populace, but rather from the embedded quasi-personal relationship that produces a sense of belonging and identity. The objectified canon takes over this quasi-personal feature, which guarantees a canon’s sanctity. Calling scripture or law “canonical” thus transcendentalizes a text and allows it to retain a sacred quality that in turn effects social control through a shared sense of belonging. This thesis is confirmed and elaborated through a review of the conceptions of canon operative in the Catholic Church during the thirteenth, the sixteenth, and the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In all these periods, the Catholic Church modified its conception of the canonical nature of both its scriptures and its laws in order to strengthen corporate identity and to establish order and control within and without its perimeter. (p. 209)

The full article can be read here in .pdf from Equinox publishing.

Pasulka, "Pre-Modern Scriptures in Postmodern Times"

Three essays focus particular attention on the function of performative readings of scriptures. In “Pre-modern Scriptures in Postmodern Times: The Philosophical Movement to Revive Traditional Reading Practices,” Postscripts 2.2-3 (2006) 293-315, Diana Walsh Pasulka notes that reading as a kind of individual devotional performance has been the subject of much recent theorizing. She provides a review and critical analysis of philosophical attempts by Wesley Kort, Paul Griffiths and Catherine Pickstock to revive pre-modern scriptural reading practices. These thinkers argue “that is it the very loss of scripture as performance that has inaugurated a loss of the sacred in modernity. This development thus tackles the philosophical issues at stake between secularism and theology and moves beyond the localized analysis of the meaning of specific scriptures” (p. 293). Diana compares their theoretical move to Martin Heidegger’s attempt to use ancient notions of art to similarly recover a sense of the sacred. Like him, Kort, Griffiths, and Pickstock “each hopes to instill in his or her readers a belief that the experience of the sacred is possible in the present. In this way, each is part of a movement within contemporary Christian religious thought that is reassessing the function of scriptures in conveying sacred presence” (p. 313).

The full article is available here from Equinox publishing.

Yoo on Korean Scripture Reading Rituals

Yohan Yoo, in “Public Scripture Reading Rituals in Early Korean Protestantism: A Comparative Perspective,” Postscripts 2.2-3 (2006) 226–240, describes the importance of public Bible readings for the spread of Christianity in early twentieth-century Korea. His case study shows clearly how the performative dimension of scriptures can aid cross-cultural transferals of scriptures.

The particular ways in which the Bible was read in the Korean context contributed to the growing number of converts to Christianity. Bible readings in the context of study groups in early Korean Protestantism facilitated the absorption of Christianity into Korean culture by building on traditional religious practices and by offering a way for native Koreans to take the lead in the growth of the new religion. (p. 226)

In the Korean Bible study meetings, the contents of the read words was given performative force by the ritualization of the reading experience and the ritualization of the Bible itself. (p. 237)

The full article can be read here from Equinox publishing.

Castelli, on Horne's "The Tailenders"

The performative dimension of scriptures is also the subject of the final essay, Elizabeth Castelli’s interview with film-maker, Adele Horne (Postscripts 2 [2006] 316–327). Horne’s 2006 documentary, The Tailenders, explores missionaries’ distribution of extremely low-tech recordings of Bible stories and their reception by communities in crisis.

Focusing on oral transmission by working with native speakers of indigenous languages, [Global Recordings Network] makes recordings of the stories and distributes them in low-tech formats using “hand-crank” technologies. The film emphasizes the linkages between Christian missionary groups and processes of capitalist globalization, between Protestant values and the technologies of modernity. (p. 316).

The full interview can be read here from Equinox publishing.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Lecture on Iconic Books

I will be lecturing on "Iconic Books: The Power of the Image of the Text" at the Vero Beach Museum of Art this Wednesday (March 12th) at 3:30 pm.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Why do we blog?

A “meme” circulating among bibliobloggers (e.g. Biblicalia, Iyov) asks “Why do you blog?” I want to answer this one because I think the motives behind the Iconic Books Blog are somewhat unusual. It may help readers to have them spelled out.

This is a research blog. By that, I mean it’s primary purpose is data collection about iconic books. Sometimes we also provide some preliminary analysis of that data; more often we refer readers to longer discussions elsewhere. But the main point of this effort is to collect and catalog references to iconic books and texts on the web.

Why iconic books on the web? Many of us who study this subject (including all four of the contributors to this blog) tend to research the iconic uses of texts in cultures both long ago and far away. We note the prominence of books in ancient rituals and art and spin theories about their social significance. This kind of research can leave the impression that these practices distinguish ancient cultures from modern ones, that book magic and rituals are dying if not already dead in the “information age,” that a focus on textual meaning rather than material form characterizes modern culture.

I think those conclusions are quite wrong. Attention to books, book forms, and book images in contemporary culture remains very strong. This blog aims to demonstrate that claim by compiling examples wherever we find them on the internet of the iconicity of books and texts.

Why the blog format? Constructing a visual and textual database presents problems of organization, indexing, collaboration and presentation—problems which the Iconic Books Project has to face in deciding how to use and distribute the database we’ve been building for six years. Blogs provide convenient tools for compiling and cataloging materials on the web and simultaneously sharing them with other researchers. So this blog is an experiment in the use of blogging as a collaborative research tool.

Of course, the blog format can probably not resolve all of our databasing issues. Copyrighted printed materials should not be reproduced on a public blog. Web materials move or disappear at an alarming rate, so older links rapidly go dead. And, despite its size and diversity, the web does not evenly represent cultural phenomena, but slices of cultures biased by language, technological access, and selective interests, among other things.

But the Iconic Books Blog can at least highlight the web evidence for the larger claim that iconic books and texts remain a powerful and under-studied religious and secular phenomenon.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Athenaeum Article in the NYTimes

Where does one keep that special kind of books? In a special kind of library, of course.

The March 7 online issue of the New York Times presents "Where Greek Ideals Meet New England Charm," an article about several New England athenaeums. The article includes several examples of the users of these "bookish sanctuaries" remarking that it is often the physical appearance of a book that is important, and that the right physical appearance can reveal something about the contents. Some athenaeums catalog their books based on physical qualities rather than by content.
[Richard Wendorf, director and librarian of the Boston Athenaeum] added that athenaeum methods of stacking books (by size or by several different or proprietary systems) also promote serendipitous discoveries.

“This is browsing at its very best,” he said, emphasizing that the entire book stock of the Boston Athenaeum, save for rare vaulted materials, is available for members to explore. “The physicality of books often is very important.”

[. . .]

“Some members look for novels with the most-tattered covers,” Ms. [Jean Marie] Procious [director of the Salem Athenaeum] explained. “They figure these were the most widely read and must be the best.”

Jim Watts: The LA Times recently featured a story on home libraries that also emphasized book display: "In a city derided for its cerebral shortcomings, the home library -- once merely a quaint signature of old money -- is asserting itself as a showcase for personal taste, designers say...."

Christopher Moore's Lamb: Special Gift Edition

Christopher Moore's humorous novel Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal has been republished in a new Special Edition binding that should be familiar to fans of iconic books. This edition has the floppy faux-leather cover, the gilt-edged pages, and the red ribbon bookmark that typically set off a traditional Bible as a different kind of book. Here we see that at least one kind of iconicity is common enough to make parody effective.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Bookshelf Design

Michael Lieberman on Book Patrol observes that bookshelf design seems to be flourishing (see this gallery of recent designs, Lu Terceiro's regular "shelf of the day" feature, and the new blog, Bookshelf). He wonders:

Has bookcase design exploded or has the internet simply brought us all closer together with visual (and commercial) opportunities unheard of a generation ago?

Is it possible for the internet to be both withering and strengthening the book at the same time?

I don't know the answer to his first question. The evidence amassed on this blog suggests, though, that the answer to his second question is: "Rumors of the death of the book have been vastly exaggerated ..."