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.)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Selling Books in Imperial Rome

Mary Beard has a fun article, "Scrolling Down the Ages," on the ancient Roman book trade in the New York Times.

Map of the Land of Books

Strange Maps has reproduced a fanciful map of the "land of books" drawn by German illustrator Alphons Woelfle in 1938.

Comments to the post have helpfully provided English translations to the various labels. The Blog points out that:

Plotting out imagined places on a map as if they were “real” countries is a favourite trope in curious cartography. The artificial equation of place and meaning allows for double-entendres and other humorous leaps of the imagination on which this allegorical form of cartography thrives. As a sub-genre of cartography, it has been around since at least La carte de tendre, an 18th-century French map of love’s topography (discussed in entry #245 of this blog). Other examples previously discussed include a Map on Temperance (#258) or a German map of the Empire of Love (#59).

I notice that the map pays almost as much attention to the material production of books as to their literary genres. The river that flows through the land of book sellers as called the "paper stream" and has sources in the land of papermills and the lake of tints...

Saturday, April 18, 2009

From desecration to arson

The Yemen Post reports that charges of desecrating a Qur'an led to crowds ransacking the alleged perpetrators' house and burning his cars:

On Tuesday, citizens destroyed the three-storey house of a Yemeni, who lived in the Al-Hasaba area, Sana'a, after they accused of desecrating the Quran.

Eyewitnesses said the man tore the Quran and treaded on it before citizens but the reason for his violation has not been identified.

Some people in the area called the police and informed them about a person who insulted the Quran.

Seeing that the police did not take action, citizens who rallied after the dawn prayers from a number of mosques broke into the offender's house and destroyed it.

They also burned his two cars which were parked at the house and the furniture inside the house

A parliament committee has been set up to investigate the incident.

(For similar incidents involving the scriptures of several different religions, see my recent comparative analysis of scripture desecration stories.)

Torah Scroll as sign of legitimacy

The AP's report of a Philadelphia synagogue's new Torah scroll emphasizes its significance as a sign of this African-American congregation's Jewish legitimacy:

The jubilation in Temple Beth’El’s packed sanctuary overflowed into the aisles, with members dancing, clapping and singing as they welcomed their first Torah from Israel.

A new sacred scroll, the holiest object in Judaism, is cause for celebration in any synagogue. But for this Philadelphia congregation, it meant much more. It signified a tentative step toward the mainstream of American Jewish life.

“We have been unable to sleep and to eat,” said Debra Bowen, who is the rabbi. “We have Torah fever!”

The article proceeds to tally the signs of links between this congregation and other Philadelphia Jews, which seems to be nation-wide trend.

This story provides a good example of the fact that the social function of the iconic dimension of scriptures is to convey legitimacy, whether religious or political.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Second Iconic Books Symposium!

The second Symposium on Iconic Books will be held at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY, on September 4-6. Though not all the panelists and speakers have been confirmed as yet, I've posted preliminary information the Iconic Books website. Please come and let others know who might be interested in this interdisciplinary endeavor!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

JZ Smith calls for Study of Iconic Scriptures

J. Z. Smith’s SBL presidential address, “Religion and the Bible,” appears in this month’s Journal of Biblical Literature. When I heard it last November, I was delighted that Smith issue a clarion call for the study of scriptures as material objects very much along the lines that we have been developing in the Iconic Books Project. In the second-to-the-last paragraph, after summarizing the work of W. C. Smith on the performance of scriptures, he argues:

that alongside a focus on ritual, on performance, equal to that given to myth, to sacred text, there be an equivalent concern for sacred texts as embodied material objects commensurate with interests in those texts as documents of faith and history. After all, canonization, in the case of the Bible, is inseparable from modes of production, being as much an affair of technology as theology.

A footnote amplifies his proposal:

Without supplying either specific examples or supporting bibliography, the enterprise of studying sacred (canonical) texts as embodied material objects may be conceived in terms of five foci: (1) The study of the effects of modes of production should include not only technological processes but also economic factors (e.g., patronage) and entrepreneurial decisions that affect format, design, and the inclusion of supplementary matter. (2) One must consider the status of the material text as an icon, an element in what has come to be termed, by some scholars, “visible religion.” Here the text is not limited in its sacrality to its origin or referent, but is, itself, a ‘holy thing.’ (3) Closely related is the employment of the text as a ritual object. This is a different usage from (4) the lectionary use of a sacred text in a ritual context, or (5) the use of the text as a ritual handbook.

J. Z. Smith theorized rituals in the 1980s in ways that profoundly shaped my ideas of the ritualization of scripture. His endorsement of this line of research here is welcome support to our efforts.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Alhambra's Inscriptions

The AP, along with many other media sources, reports on an effort to translate and catalog all the inscriptions on the walls of the Alhambra, in Grenada, Spain. Caligraphic carvings, estimated to number around 10,000, cover walls, columns, and fountains.

Through the centuries, the popular belief was that most of the writings were verses from the Quran or poetry. But on the basis of the Alhambra building that has been studied so far, the Comares Palace, those amount to less than 10 percent of the total, Castilla said.

In fact, the phrase repeated most often — hundreds upon hundreds of times — is a sentence considered the slogan of the Nazrid dynasty, one of the successions of rulers that passed through the Alhambra. It says: "There is no victor but God."

... "As you walk along, it seems as if you are opening a book of poetry and turning the pages," he said

The presumption that all the incriptions are Qur'anic shows the power that the convention of monumentalizing iconic scriptures exerts on popular expectations of any monumentally inscribed Arabic text.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Exhibit Hall for China's Oldest Qur'an

These are photos from Aboutxinjiang of "the newly-built exhibition hall to display China's oldest handwritten copy of the Koran in Salar Autonomous County of Xunhua, northwest China's Qinghai Province. A handwritten copy of the Koran, the oldest of its kind known in China, is to open to public soon at the exhibition hall besides the Jiezi mosque. The Koran copy originally preserved in the Jiezi mosque was believed to be written between the eighth and the 13th century, according to experts of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage."

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Desecrating Scriptures

My case study, "Desecrating Scriptures," has been published online by the Luce Project in Religion, Media and International Relations here at Syracuse University.

The case study analyzes news media reports of scripture desecrations from the last decade through the lens of my three-dimensional theory of scriptures. The stories show how iconic books get used in inter- and intra-religious conflicts in Muslim, Sikh, Jewish and Christian cultures. Their comparison reveals many common features, but also a notable difference: the iconicity of scriptures tends to be more controversial among Christians. I trace this difference to the fact that, unlike Jewish, Muslim and Sikh scriptures,
there is no common language and its recognizable sounds and no common text and its recognizable script to distinguish the Christian scriptures from other books and texts. Though the external binding may take stereotypical forms, the look and sound of the contents vary from culture to culture and denomination to denomination. ... linguistic diversity reinforces among Christians the notion that the essential nature of the Bible lies in its semantic meaning alone.

The Iconic Books Blog provided much of the material for writing this case study. It was my first test of the usefulnes of this research blog, and I'm quite happy with the experience. By listing here stories of scripture desecration as we've noticed them over the last two years, I had a ready database to start from. The blog's label function and Blogger's search feature made it very easy to pull the material together. It really made doing this kind of comparative case study feasible. So the blog passed its first test as a research tool with flying colors!