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, 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.

Museum of Scribes in Safed

A new museum will open this summer in Safed, Israel. Kiryat Hasofrim "Palace of the scribes" is intended, according to Chabad.org News,
to educate visitors about the Jewish scribal arts. Some 30 scribes will produce Torah scrolls, mezuzahs and tefillin in a factory on the premises.

... The centerpiece of the visitors center – aptly named Letters of Experience – will be a three-roomed exhibit that will take tourists on a whirlwind tour of the scribal arts, beginning with G-d’s creation of the world through the power of speech.

A movie will explain the spiritual significance and history of each of the Hebrew alphabet’s 22 letters, while a three-dimensional show will illustrate how animal hides and plants become the various parchments, boxes and inks used in the preparation of mezuzahs, tefillin and Torah scrolls.

“The idea that physical things can attain holiness is a central concept in Judaism,” explained Kaplan. “The exhibit will show how we take the world around us and make it holy.”
... The factory operations will be decidedly technologically-based, as well, with supervisors scanning every parchment and entering it into a computerized database, providing a quality-control mechanism previously unknown to the scribal community.

The Value of the Research Library

Robert Darnton, writing in The New York Review of Books, considers the future of the Library in an essay that ranges from the beginnings of writing through newspaper journalism and early modern novels to Google Books. Some excerpts:

... In place of the long-term view of technological transformations, which underlies the common notion that we have just entered a new era, the information age, I want to argue that every age was an age of information, each in its own way, and that information has always been unstable. ...

... Piracy was so pervasive in early modern Europe that best-sellers could not be blockbusters as they are today. Instead of being produced in huge numbers by one publisher, they were printed simultaneously in many small editions by many publishers, each racing to make the most of a market unconstrained by copyright. Few pirates attempted to produce accurate counterfeits of the original editions. They abridged, expanded, and reworked texts as they pleased, without worrying about the authors' intentions. They behaved as deconstructionists avant la lettre. ...

... to put it positively, there is something to be said for both visions, the library as a citadel and the Internet as open space. ... Google Book Search, the largest undertaking of them all, will [not] make research libraries obsolete. On the contrary, Google will make them more important than ever. ... the totality of world literature—all the books in all the languages of the world—lies far beyond Google's capacity to digitize. ... Electronic enterprises come and go. Research libraries last for centuries. Better to fortify them than to declare them obsolete, because obsolescence is built into the electronic media. ...

... Unless the vexatious problem of digital preservation is solved, all texts "born digital" belong to an endangered species. The obsession with developing new media has inhibited efforts to preserve the old. We have lost 80 percent of all silent films and 50 percent of all films made before World War II. Nothing preserves texts better than ink imbedded in paper, especially paper manufactured before the nineteenth century, except texts written on parchment or engraved in stone. The best preservation system ever invented was the old-fashioned, pre-modern book. ...

... It is important to get the feel of a book—the texture of its paper, the quality of its printing, the nature of its binding. Its physical aspects provide clues about its existence as an element in a social and economic system; and if it contains margin notes, it can reveal a great deal about its place in the intellectual life of its readers.

Books also give off special smells. According to a recent survey of French students, 43 percent consider smell to be one of the most important qualities of printed books—so important that they resist buying odorless electronic books. CafĂ©Scribe, a French on-line publisher, is trying to counteract that reaction by giving its customers a sticker that will give off a fusty, bookish smell when it is attached to their computers. ...

... Meanwhile, I say: shore up the library. Stock it with printed matter. Reinforce its reading rooms. But don't think of it as a warehouse or a museum. While dispensing books, most research libraries operate as nerve centers for transmitting electronic impulses. They acquire data sets, maintain digital re-positories, provide access to e-journals, and orchestrate information systems that reach deep into laboratories as well as studies. Many of them are sharing their intellectual wealth with the rest of the world by permitting Google to digitize their printed collections. Therefore, I also say: long live Google, but don't count on it living long enough to replace that venerable building with the Corinthian columns. As a citadel of learning and as a platform for adventure on the Internet, the research library still deserves to stand at the center of the campus, preserving the past and accumulating energy for the future.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

U.S. Soldier Shoots at Qur'an

The gravity with which religious texts are handled is on full display in this CNN article about an American soldier in Iraq who used a Qur'an for target practice and the wide-reaching political responses following the act:
A soldier used the Quran -- Islam's holy book -- for target practice, forcing the chief U.S. commander in Baghdad to issue a formal apology on Saturday.

Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, apologized to leaders in Radhwaniya, in the western outskirts of Baghdad, for the staff sergeant who was a sniper section leader assigned to the headquarters of the 64th Armored Regiment. He also read a letter of apology by the shooter.

[. . .]

Copies of the pictures of the Quran obtained by CNN show multiple bullet holes and an expletive scrawled on one of its pages.

[. . .]

Sheikh Hamadi al-Qirtani, in a speech on behalf of all tribal sheiks of Radhwaniya, called the incident "aggression against the entire Islamic world."

The Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq also condemned the shooter's actions and the U.S. military's belated acknowledgment of the incident.

[. . .]
The incident provides another example that a book is often understood as much more than merely its contents, and that to damage a book is to wage war on the ideas articulated within its pages and on the people who value those ideas.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Isaiah Scroll back in the Shrine of the Book

As part of the commemorations of the State of Israel's 60th anniversary, the Israel Museum will display major sections of the Qumran Isaiah scroll from May 16 through August 30th, reports ArtDaily. The permanent display for the Dead Sea Scrolls in "the Shrine of the Book" was designed in 1965 to present the Isaiah scroll in the elevated spindle at its center. Concerns for the preservation of the scroll, however, resulted in its being replaced by a facsimile for most of the past 40 years. Now it will reappear temporarily in the place designed for it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

For Sale: The Ten Commandments from the Ten Commandments

A very iconic copy of a very iconic text can now be yours! (for $60K or so)

NEW YORK (AP) — Thou shalt find the Ten Commandments up for bid this summer.

A pair of faux granite tablets that Charlton Heston cradled in the 1956 biblical epic "The Ten Commandments" is expected to fetch as much as $60,000, said Marc Kruskol, a publicist for the auction Profiles in History. It is the fourth set of tablets that remains from the film that featured Heston as Moses.

... The auction runs July 31-Aug. 1.

3D Book in Video

This video not only shows off an ingenious abecedary; it also suggests a good way to display (and advertise) book art. Books and book art do not fit well into the kind of static displays favored by museums and libraries, as I've noted before. Here video solves the problem of how to show people the whole book when they can't, or shouldn't, handle it themselves.

Click "menu" for videos of some other pop-up books. (h/t Lu Terceiro)

Monday, May 12, 2008

Private Libraries

Dan Visel, writing on if:book, tells of visiting a sumptuous private library at the invitation of the anonymous owner:

Just about every lavish book imaginable was present: an elephant folio of Audobon along with a full set of John Gould's more sumptuous prints of birds; a Kelmscott Chaucer; a page from a Gutenberg Bible; a first edition of Johnson's Dictionary; countless antique atlases of anatomy and cosmography; the Arion Press edition of Ulysses illustrated by Robert Motherwell; hand-illuminated Books of Hours. There were exquisite jeweled bindings, books woven entirely from silk, and doubtless many more things that couldn't be seen in a three-hour tour. The collector mentioned in passing that he was thinking of buying a Wyclif Bible for around $600,000 because he didn't have one yet.

... The collector can afford to let his visitors touch his books. In a way, the books in his collection are functioning as they are intended to function: as objects to be read and appreciated. They're also functioning as signifiers of luxury. His collection is a repository of wealth in a way less metaphorical than we usually talk about library as repositories. No library, private or public, exists entirely outside of this economic system; it's an integral part of the way we consider books.

I would gloss this statement only by deleting "also." The books "function as they were inteded to function, ... as signifiers of luxury." The iconic function of a sumptuous (or rare or old or popular) book conveys status and prestige, to individual collectors but also to institutions, whether libraries, universities or governments.

Visel goes on to describe how university libraries also restrict access and invest in security, and house their books in buildings like fortresses. Making an architectual show of limiting access is a time-honored way of drawing attention to the important treasures inside.