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.)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Obama with Constitution

President Barack Obama's speech today about closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility was carefully staged in front of the iconic American political text, the Constitution. (Images from Zimbio.)

He spoke in the Rotunda of the National Archives with the Constitution and Bill of Rights displayed right behind him.

From the side, he was framed by paintings of the Constitution's signers.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney presented a strong rebuttal speech immediately afterwards at the American Enterprise Institute. Pictures show him framed by the word "Enterprise." The debate over prisoner detention policy will no doubt continue for a long time, but the dueling pictures give a clear win to Obama.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Reading Aloud

Verlyn Klinkenborg in the New York Times notes that while contemporary Americans listen to books almost as often as reading them,

But from the perspective of a reader in, say, the early 19th century, about the time of Jane Austen, there is something peculiar about it, even lonely.

In those days, literate families and friends read aloud to each other as a matter of habit

She points out that asking someone to read aloud is the best test of their understanding, and follows that with a wonderful description of how reading aloud embodies words:

Reading aloud recaptures the physicality of words. To read with your lungs and diaphragm, with your tongue and lips, is very different than reading with your eyes alone. The language becomes a part of the body, which is why there is always a curious tenderness, almost an erotic quality, in those 18th- and 19th-century literary scenes where a book is being read aloud in mixed company. The words are not mere words. They are the breath and mind, perhaps even the soul, of the person who is reading.

Klinkenborg holds out little hope that reading aloud will make a comeback, like listening has:

I suspect there is no going back. You can easily make the argument that reading silently is an economic artifact, a sign of a new prosperity beginning in the early 19th century and a new cheapness in books. The same argument applies to listening to books on your iPhone. But what I would suggest is that our idea of reading is incomplete, impoverished, unless we are also taking the time to read aloud.

Here, however, her focus on literature misleads here into drawing a false conclusion from a too limited database. Whether or not they read novels and poetry to each other, throughout history many people in many cultures have voiced aloud the words of their scriptures, laboring to pronounce unfamiliar names, archaic translations, even foreign and dead languages, and prizing the skills of those who do it well. They still do.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Digitizing the Past in the WSJ

"Next Age of Discovery," a recent Wall Street Journal article, provides a wonderful synopsis of the work going on to digitize ancient manuscripts. Prominent projects are mentioned (including many that have been chronicled here in the Iconic Books blog), and some of the techniques used to save these treasures to digital formats are described.

One of the things that stands out to me in this article is that the endeavor to preserve the past is not just the work of a few librarians or historians. It is a massive, uncoordinated effort being carried out by academic researchers, faith groups, and corporations. Important contributors range from archaeologists finding lost pieces of antiquity in an Egyptian garbage dump to NASA scientists developing multi-spectral photographic techniques that make visible things that were once invisible. Motives range from creating a marketable product to saving the textual artifacts of religious faith.

Slide 10 of the slideshow is particularly interesting. It shows the fruit of the labor of bringing space-age photography to medieval (and older) manuscripts. Studying a document through different spectra often reveals that a piece of writing material has been used and erased or scrubbed clean multiple times, but that all of those texts may still be read.

(Thanks go to Victoria Maloy of Mt. Mercy College for bringing this article to my attention.)

Friday, May 8, 2009

Female Torah Scribes

Jen Taylor Friedman, a Jewish woman in the Bronx, has mastered the skills of a Torah scribe and already completed two scrolls, according to the Riverdale Press:

Many consider Ms. Friedman, 29, an important feminist figure, holding her up as a pioneering example to young Jewish women. Other Jews, primarily in the Orthodox community, believe she is out of bounds, doing work meant only for men or — in the case of Tefillin Barbie — simply inappropriate.

Ms. Friedman sold her first two Torahs to synagogues in St. Louis and Michigan.

Now, as she undertakes a third Torah, she is still adjusting to her role as lightning rod in the Jewish community. She’s been named to the Forward’s list of 50 influential Jews and, just last week, to Jewish Week’s list of 30 influential Jews under 30

What that story does not say is that opposition to women scribes stems, at least in part, from the traditional purification rituals required of Torah scribes. Many believe that women cannot maintain the purity necessary to complete a scroll, a task that usually takes nearly a year. The issue, then, is not about skill and ability, but rather about the sanctity of a Torah scroll itself. However, the positive attention being shown Ms. Friedman also employs the legitimizing function of an iconic scripture, in this case to legitimize efforts for gender equality by putting a scribe among a select group of "influential Jews."

Thursday, May 7, 2009

US Army destroys Bibles in Afghan languages

Now here's a story I really don't know how to categorize: "Disposal"? "Desecration"? "Politics" for sure...

KABUL, May 5 (Reuters) - Bibles in Afghan languages sent to a U.S. soldier at a base in Afghanistan were confiscated and destroyed to ensure that troops did not breach regulations which forbid proselytising, a military spokeswoman said.

The U.S. military has denied its soldiers tried to convert Afghans to Christianity, after Qatar-based Al Jazeera television showed soldiers at a bible class on a base with a stack of bibles translated into the local Pashto and Dari languages.

U.S. Central Command's General Order Number 1 forbids troops on active duty -- including all those based in Iraq and Afghanistan -- from trying to convert people to another religion.

"I can now confirm that the Bibles shown on Al Jazeera's clip were, in fact, collected by the chaplains and later destroyed. They were never distributed," spokeswoman Major Jennifer Willis said at Bagram air base, north of Kabul.

Military officials have said the bibles were sent through private mail to an evangelical Christian soldier by his church back home. The soldier brought them to the bible study class where they were filmed.

Trying to convert Muslims to another faith is a crime in Afghanistan. An Afghan man who converted to Christianity was sentenced to death for apostasy in 2006 but was allowed to leave the country after an international uproar.

"It certainly is, from the United States military's perspective, not our position to ever push any specific kind of religion, period," chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen told a Pentagon briefing on Monday. (Reporting by Peter Graff)

Destroying the Bibles could well fuel a backlash, but so far it is limited. Mission Network News quotes Carl Moeller of Open Doors, USA (which apparently supplied the Bibles) saying
the Bibles didn't need to be destroyed. "There's certainly many organizations that could put them to good use. Any time you see a Bible destroyed, it really should shake the core of every Christian to realize that this is the kind of desecration that can happen to God's Word."

American Family News Network quotes "a Pentagon adviser," Bob Maginnis:

"By and large, soldiers should have the right to share their faith wherever they are," he contends, "and for the political correctness crew to come aboard and declare that we're going to destroy Bibles because of the sensitivity of the local command, I find egregious."

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Matching Bible & Purse

Tyndale House Publishers is marketing this "Veritas Journey Bible and Purse." The marketing copy states:

Introducing Veritas, the fashionable and smart new solution for women who crave something different. The Bible goes where they go with these stylish, full-size purses complete with a coordinating compact New Living Translation tucked away in its very own easy-to-access compartment. Veritas gives fashion-savvy women the freedom to conveniently and comfortably carry the Truth with them everywhere, every day.

Julia O'Brien, who drew my attention to this, comments:

For many, religious symbols and words are chosen for how they look and feel, rather than what the words themselves say. As in the illuminated Bibles of the past, words become art. Biblical texts have the additional benefit of feeling ancient and serious and important. It does something for people even when they don't read it.

Which is what keeps the Iconic Books Project in business!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Bible Reading Marathons Begin

Round-the-clock public readings of the Christian Bible from cover-to-cover have begun in various cities across the United States. Though continuous sequential reading of scripture is not characteristic of Christian rituals, unlike some other religious traditions, the practice has been spreading among American evangelicals. Such a reading has been performed annually since 1990 on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, DC, in the days leading up to the National Day of Prayer (May 7). This year, there are also marathon readings going on in Springfield OH, Troy AL, Hamilton NY, Ozark AL, and Murfreesboro TN (pictured above).

"It is very difficult to keep digital data moving forward in time"

If the preservation of granite monuments depends on social continuity and support (see previous post), that is all the more true of digital data. For yet another example of the difficulties in preserving digital texts, the Long Now Blog gathers reports about the strenous efforts needed to resurrect digital pictures of the Moon taken by pre-Apollo 11 robot spacecraft.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Preservation of Monumental Texts

The Georgia Guidestones were vandalized in early December. The mysterious Guidestones were built in 1980 and are inscribed in eight languages with tenets usually described as "new age." Randall Sullivan writes in Wired Magazine:

the stones had been splattered with polyurethane and spray-painted with graffiti, including slogans like "Death to the new world order." This defacement was the first serious act of vandalism in the Guidestones' history, but it was hardly the first objection to their existence.

(For pictures of the vandalism and a list of the tenets, along with paranoid commentary, see Prison Planet). Sullivan thinks the unknown people behind the Guidestones

knew what they were doing: The monument is a highly engineered structure that flawlessly tracks the sun. It also manages to engender endless fascination, thanks to a carefully orchestrated aura of mystery. And the stones have attracted plenty of devotees to defend against folks who would like them destroyed. Clearly, whoever had the monument placed here understood one thing very well: People prize what they don't understand at least as much as what they do.

Maybe, but I suspect they were mistaken in thinking that monuments survive due to their mystery and durable materials. Monuments rather survive due to social structures (political, religious or cultural) that guard and maintain them. As the Long Now Blog notes:

As for the Guidestones’ likelihood to survive, it is interesting to note that the surrounding mystery has been both a help and a hindrance. By instilling wonder and encouraging curiosity, the secretive creators have generated a good deal of interest in the monument. They’ve also, however, allowed some blanks to be filled by people offended by the little that is discernible about their agenda.

They note that interest in preserving and maintaining the monument seems to be come primarily from business interests represented by the local county tourism office.