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 31, 2009

Painting Bookshelves

Australian artist Victoria Reichelt has painted a series of paintings of bookshelves:

Reichert told the InsideOut Blog: "These works are a paradox to paint - as once the books are an image on canvas, they are shut forever and can never be read. In a painting, they serve a very different purpose from their intended function – they are purely objects like the others I paint and you’re forced to judge them by the covers."

After starting with staged bookshelves, more recently she has been painting the bookshelves of people as she finds them. Michael Lieberman on Book Patrol comments: "The leap from painting staged bookshelves to actual bookshelves is huge and opens up a whole new realm of possibilities. Imagine high-end collectors having portraits done of their collections to complement their own portraits ...."

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Paper as Storage Media

Digital media's reputation for impermanence is growing. In the New York Times, David Pogue presents his interview with Dag Spicer, curator of the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley.

David Pogue: What is data rot?

Dag Spicer: Data rot refers mainly to problems with the medium on which information is stored. Over time, things like temperature, humidity, exposure to light, being stored not-very-good locations like moldy basements, make this information very difficult to read.

The second aspect of data rot is actually finding the machines to read them. And that is a real problem. If you think of the 8-track tape player, for example, basically the only way you can find 8-track cartridges is in a flea market or a garage sale.

The problem, strangely enough, is not so bad on the older stuff, but quite bad on the more recent stuff. So we can read tapes here at the museum that are 50 years old.

... The real problem lies in newer formats. With a CD or a DVD, if there's an error, often it's non-recoverable, and you've just lost all your information.

On the same theme, see the recent article in Lost Magazine on "Are We Losing Our Memory? or The Museum of Obsolete Technology."

Spicer offers suggestions for preserving digital data, which come down to constant updating, what Kevin Kelly calls "movage" of data from one medium and platform to another. But then he adds:

Consider paper as an archival medium. Some paper we have has lasted thousands of years.

DP: Hasn't anyone tried to create a truly permanent storage medium?

DS: One of the technologies for really long-term preservation was developed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. It was, I think, a titanium disk about the size of a long-playing record, and it was supposed to last 10,000 years. But then they realized that there were some assumptions that weren't right, and that it would not last 1,000 years, it might only last 20.

Otherwise, as far as I know, no one is working on this problem. It's really in no one's interest, no manufacturer's interest; they want to keep selling you more hard drives every two to five years, or more blank CDs, and what have you.

And that's why it's almost like your retirement, it's something you have to take responsibility for yourself. No one is going to do it for you.

In fact, the Long Now Foundation is working on the problem, but their Rosetta Disk costs $25,000--not yet a solution for mass preservation.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Burying Ukrainian Torahs

The government of Ukraine is returning old Torah scrolls to local synagogues, according to Radio Free Europe:

The Central State Historical Archive in the Ukrainian city of Lviv have returned 14 Torah fragments to a local Jewish congregation, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reports.

Mordehai Shlomo Bold, the chief rabbi of Lviv, told RFE/RL that the Torah fragments he received from the archive will be buried, in accordance with Jewish customs. Bold said Jewish tradition requires them to bury the holy book pieces in the same way a human is buried because it is considered "dead," or impossible to restore.

Four other Ukrainian cities are planning to give very old copies or portions of a Torah to Jewish communities based on a presidential decree signed in 2007.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Altered Books and Memories

Brian Dettmer's new show of altered books prompts if:book's Sabastian Mary to wonder about "deeply-held taboos around the sanctity of books as objects":

Recycling, reimagining, repurposing the cultural glut amidst which we currently exist feels in many ways an appropriate artistic mode for today. Is authorship really so sacred that remixed works cannot themselves be things of beauty and value? Or, like European villages dismantling local medieval chateaux to build outhouses, are we taking our cultural history so completely for granted that we're in danger of forgetting or destroying millennia of culture in a thoughtless reappropriation of its materials for our current preoccupations?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Tibetan books in Chinese media

The Chinese public relations campaign to influence Western views about Tibet includes--among headlines such as "Tibetans enjoy full religious freedom" and "Tibetan culture well preserved"--a couple of stories about Tibetan books and texts.

One video report from Xinhua Net shows the creation of a "Family Museum" to house a multi-volume Tibetan Buddhist classic after years of storage.

In another, Xinhua "China News" describes efforts to build "the largest stone sutra pagoda in Tibet" on Mount Chakpori opposite the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet.

With a small mallet in one hand and a chisel in another, nine youngsters, sitting or squatting under a large piece of broken gray cloth shelter, are engraving lines of Tibetan sutra "Kangyur" into the stone slates. Less than 20 meters ahead is the pagoda, which is not yet completed after 14 years of construction, but embodies all their piety and faith to Buddha.

Tokdan Dawa Rinpoche, the sponsor of the pagoda, is sitting, with his legs crossed, on a carpet nearby the simple workshop, chanting sutras as throngs of devotees, with prayer wheels in hand, bowed to him and passed by, heading for the pagoda to pray along a dusty path.

As a tradition for centuries, Tibetan Buddhism believers engrave the sutras and Buddha images on stones as a way to keep the classics. It is also believed that the engravers, called "duoduo" in Tibetan, are able to achieve more happiness in their next lives through the toil of inscribing.

... usually a full set of Kangyur sutra includes 108 parts, each of which is written on a book of 200 to 400 pages. The engravers have finished inscribing the sutra and more than one million of stone slates piled into a 13-floor pagoda of more than 30 meters high.

... More than 100 engravers -- some from sophisticated stone-engraving families and some novices -- have volunteered to help build the pagoda. Most of them have worked here for five to six years though their pay for a whole-page Kangyur sutra is only 10 yuan (1.46 U.S. dollars).

... However, the beginning is always difficult.

As Zhoigar could not read, she just copied what she saw on the sutra book onto the stone.

"The characters were no more than some magic patterns to me at that time," recalled Zhoigar. "It also happened a lot that I had my fingers injured by the engraving tools, but the worst was that I wasted a lot of stone plates because of my mistakes, which made me cry a lot."

The tears are paid back after eight years of practicing. Zhoigar now can finish the engraving of an average of 20 stone slates every day at a speed of one Tibetan character in less than one second. She has also become a teacher for the newcomers.

"The more sutras I have engraved into the stones, the more Buddhism teachings I have engraved in my mind, which is far more important than how much money I have earned," said Zhoigar.

Arson burns Sikh scriptures

An arsonist set fire to London's Gurdwara Sikh Sangat on Tuesday, but it was the fate of the scriptures in the building that drew the emphatic attention of the Sikh and Indian press.

World Sikh News led it's story with: "As flames leapt and smoke billowed out, Sikh hearts cried at the thought of holy scriptures of Sri Guru Granth Sahib getting burnt inside this most famous of the London gurdwaras." It noted in the fourth paragraph that "The blaze, which caused the gurdwara’s roof to collapse, also engulfed all but one of the eight holy books it had housed" and quoted an onlooker: “It is like one of my gods is burning down—we worship our holy books as steps to God.”

Sify News also highlighted the scriptures in its lead: "One of London's most important gurdwara, housing priceless religious books, has been gutted in a suspected racist attack in Britain, a news report said on Tuesday."

Sindh Today included more information: "Singh said the women managed to save just one of the temple’s eight holy books before the flames took hold. 'I cannot describe how important those holy books were to the Sikh community,' he added."

Giant Qur'an sold

The Gulf News reports:

The third largest Quran in the world was sold in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday on the first day of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

The manuscript which is 80cm by 120cm was displayed in the Antiquarian Book Fair which is being hosted for the first time at the event. The Quran, which was produced in 1890 in Indonesia, came about as a result of a request from wealthy people in Arabia. Indonesian calligraphers were known at that time for their high quality artwork, Ebergard B. Talke, a German antiquarian who was selling the Quran told Gulf News.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Who owns Torah scrolls?

A dispute over ownership of four Torah scrolls has spilled out of the confidential confines of Jewish courts into Los Angeles District court, reports the Jewish Journal. The case pits a rabbi's widow, who claims the scrolls belong to her, against the rabbi who succeeded her husband who claims the scrolls belong to his congregation.

The case raises interesting questions regarding the Torah's iconic status as something more and different than just another book. The congregation's current rabbi,

Ohana disputes the very notion that the scrolls belong to Pauker, questioning whether they ever were family scrolls. Besides, he said, Torahs are owned by a community, not by a rabbi, a donor or anyone else. 'Sifrei Torah are not like money to change hands'.
(picture of Ohana from the LA Times)

He is refusing to accept the decision of a rabbinical court which disagreed with him and decided the case in favor of Mrs. Pauker. This pitting of community interests versus private ownership is reminiscent of the struggle to gather the fragments of the Aleppo Codex that remain in private hands.

April 9, 2009: The LA Superior Court judge reversed the rabbinical court's ruling and has awarded the scrolls to Rabbi Ohana and his congregation, according to the LA Times.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Cologne's Archives Collapse

Spiegel reported Tuesday on the sudden collapse of the building housing the city of Cologne's archives:

Disaster struck in Cologne on Tuesday, as the building housing the city's Historical Archive suddenly collapsed. According to city officials, two people are officially missing and believed dead. And hundreds of firefighters were on the scene Wednesday looking for survivors as Cologne historians and archivists mourned the apparent destruction of Germany's largest municipal archive.

... Cologne's archives are one of the only collections in Germany to have survived World War II completely intact. Because of Cologne's long history, much of its heritage was stored locally rather than in a state archive.

Cologne's history goes back more than 2000 years, when it was the Roman city of Colonia. In the Middle Ages, the city's prime spot along the Rhine River made it one of northern Europe's trading powerhouses, part of the Hanseatic League and a gateway between France and Germany. The Historical Archives contained extensive documentation from the city's Hanseatic period, as well as the archives of other Hanseatic League members, invaluable for historians looking at Europe's economic development.

The sheer numbers -- in total, the building had more than 18 kilometers of shelves -- reflect the rich history of what was once Germany's largest metropolis. The archive's collection of original documents included thousands from Cologne's golden age. The founding charter of the University of Cologne, signed in 1388, was inside, along with the documents that established Cologne as a free imperial city under Emperor Friedrich III in 1475. Two of the four manuscripts in the hand of Albertus Magnus, considered the greatest German theologian of the Middle Ages, were kept in the archive's rare books collection.

For historians trying to reconstruct the past, the greatest loss may be the more quotidian papers: Tens of thousands of receipts issued by the city government between 1350 and 1450, for example, or the 358 volumes of decisions and minutes of the Cologne City Council dating back 700 years.

The archives also contained the personal papers of almost 800 prominent German authors, politicians and composers, including Konrad Adenauer, the first post-war chancellor of Germany. The manuscripts and letters of Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Böll and Jacques Offenbach, a 19th century cellist and opera composer, were stored at the archive. Weimar Republic politician Wilhelm Marx and German-Jewish composer Ferdinand Hiller were among the other notables whose collections have been buried under tons of concrete. "These are fragile papers, that are now ground to dust," Illner told the daily.

... There may be no way to recover the lost collections. Large parts of the pre-1945 documents were put on microfilm and stored in a bunker in the Black Forest, but according to Illner the microfilm is of poor quality. And the post-war collections -- including records from the Cologne Art Association used to track the provenance of artworks -- have no back-up at all.

From the outside, the Historical Archive certainly looked indestructible. The bunker-like concrete structure was built in 1971, with a raw concrete façade and slit-like windows. Designers hoped the mass of concrete would keep the temperature inside constant without expensive air conditioning systems, an archive design that became known as the "Cologne model."

... The collapse may be connected with the construction of a new subway line under the street out in front of the archive.