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.)

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.