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, September 29, 2009

Scholem's Mechanically Reproduced Relic Zohar

A few years ago, the Hebrew University's Magnes Press published a special edition of the Zohar (The Book of Splendor – probably the most important Kabbalic text, dating from the Thirteenth Century). This edition of the Zohar wasn't a scholarly edition, but rather a facsimile of one of the old editions. However this is no ordinary facsimile – this mass reproduced edition is based on a Relic Zohar – the one owned by the famous Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem since he was seventeen till his demise, filled with comments in his own handwriting. The book's title is "Gershom Scholem's Zohar". Its six volumes may be bought for 367$.

The idea of publishing handwritten comments of prominent scholars taps an old rabbinic concept. The locution "be'ezem ktav yad kodsho" (something like "in the very holiness of his handwriting") is a technical term of sorts that denotes the writing in an original manuscript of an important rabbinic author as opposed to its copies and/or printed editions. This phrase conveys a sense of originality, but also a sense of sacrality – the very act of writing by an important rabbi is considered holy.

In what ways does the Magnes Press manipulate this traditional concept? The act of reproducing Scholem's handwritten comments in their original form tries to place Scholem somehow within the rabbinic tradition – it tells us "here is a modern scholar worthy of the mantle of a rabbinic sage". This says something about the complicated relationship between modern Jewish Studies and the traditional mode of Jewish learning. There's much more to be said about that, but it is not our issue here.

Our issue is the way that this message is conveyed. Scholem's comments aren't reproduced in printed Hebrew – they are presented to the reader in their handwritten form, alongside the Zohar's printed text (in Hebrew the difference between cursive script and printed script is very large – amounting to a different alphabet). The reader is faced with two kinds of mass reproduced text – the original printed form of the Zoharic text, and the mass-reproduced-but-pretending-not-to-be text of Scholem's comments. This is not a Relic book – it is a book pretending to be a relic by way of mass reproduction. What are the conceptual mechanisms involved here?

These are very similar to the conceptual manipulation used in an advertisement trying to play on the old fashioned and homely traits of a mass produced commodity (like this one). Such an advertisement tries to conceal the mass production by conceptually coloring the commodity in an atmosphere of old fashioned production. In a similar manner, the mass reproduced quality of the text of the Zohar is shaded by the pseudo-handwritten signs of Scholem's comments.

But there's a two sided bargain here. On the one hand the pretension to reproduced-relic status involves an oxymoron – if it's reproduced it ain't a relic. That is to say reproduction reduces the relic's "aura" in Walter Benjaminian parlance. But on the other hand the mass reproduction in this instance rescues the handwriting from its original ephemerality - And here Lisa Gitelman's presentation in the Second Iconic Book Symposium comes to mind. As in the example she discussed – the book Day – we are faced here with Walter Benjamin turned upside down – mass reproduction creates the aura instead of diminishing it.

How does this project generally on the category of a Relic Book? It introduces a new concept – the Pseudo-Relic. A Pseudo-Relic Book is a book which reproduces two distinct things – the text of the original relic book, but also the relicness of the original relic book. The text is reproduced in a straightforward manner; whereas the relicness has to do with an extra-textual feature which is also reproduced. I would define both Scholem's Zohar and the copies of Jung's red book as Pseudo-Relics.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Carl Jung's Red Book

Sara Corbett wrote a long article for the New York Times Magazine about the publication of Carl Jung's Liber Novus, "New Book," better known as his "Red Book." The Times also provides a photographic sample of its handwritten pages including many full-page paintings by Jung of what Corbett calls

a kind of phantasmagoric morality play, driven by Jung’s own wish not just to chart a course out of the mangrove swamp of his inner world but also to take some of its riches with him.

Jung wrote and illustrated the book by hand over a sixteen-year period to record his dreams, active imaginations and self-induced hallucinations. These experiences became the basis for much of his later theorizing about myths, dreams, and the unconscious.

Jung never published the book and his family refused to publish it or even let very many people see it. Corbett's description of the book's history presents a detailed case study of the three dimensions of an important text and their social consequences.

The book itself is beautiful and imposing, as an iconic book should be:

There sunbathing under the [photographer's] lights, sat Carl Jung’s Red Book, splayed open to Page 37. One side of the open page showed an intricate mosaic painting of a giant holding an ax, surrounded by winged serpents and crocodiles. The other side was filled with a cramped German calligraphy that seemed at once controlled and also, just given the number of words on the page, created the impression of something written feverishly, cathartically.

... The Red Book had an undeniable beauty. Its colors seemed almost to pulse, its writing almost to crawl.

Here we find a paradigmatic description of an iconic book, even a relic book. Its iconic status derives from its impressive physical appearance and one-of-a-kind nature, but also from legendary stories about its origins (what Dori Parmenter calls "the myth of the book"). That iconic/relic status precedes and lays the basis for its inspirational reading (performance) and semantic significance.

[Jungian analyst Stephen Martin] added “It gives me goose bumps just thinking about it.” He had at that point yet to lay eyes on the book, but for him that made it all the more tantalizing. His hope was that the Red Book would “reinvigorate” Jungian psychology, or at the very least bring himself personally closer to Jung. “Will I understand it?” he said. “Probably not. Will it disappoint? Probably. Will it inspire? How could it not?” He paused a moment, seeming to think it through. “I want to be transformed by it,” he said finally. “That’s all there is.”

Jung himself seems to have recognized the iconic power of textuality. One of his clients recorded his advice on how to process her inner life:

“I should advise you to put it all down as beautifully as you can — in some beautifully bound book,” Jung instructed. “It will seem as if you were making the visions banal — but then you need to do that — then you are freed from the power of them. . . . Then when these things are in some precious book you can go to the book & turn over the pages & for you it will be your church — your cathedral — the silent places of your spirit where you will find renewal. If anyone tells you that it is morbid or neurotic and you listen to them — then you will lose your soul — for in that book is your soul.”

The first and chief semantic interpreter of the Red Book is its translator, Prof. Sonu Shamdasani who teaches at University College, London. In the classic tradition of textual experts of any tradition and era, he emphasizes semantic expertise:

He tends to be suspicious of interpretive thinking that’s not anchored by hard fact — and has, in fact, made a habit of attacking anybody he deems guilty of sloppy scholarship — and also maintains a generally unsentimental attitude toward Jung. Both of these qualities make him, at times, awkward company among both Jungians and Jungs.

... Having lived more or less alone with the book for almost a decade, Shamdasani — who is a lover of fine wine and the intricacies of jazz — these days has the slightly stunned aspect of someone who has only very recently found his way out of an enormous maze. When I visited him this summer in the book-stuffed duplex overlooking the heath, he was just adding his 1,051st footnote to the Red Book.

As with other relic books the world over, the iconic claims of private owners and public scholarship come into conflict:

The relationship between historians and the families of history’s luminaries is, almost by nature, one of mutual disenchantment. One side works to extract; the other to protect. One pushes; one pulls.

... To talk to Jung’s heirs is to understand that nearly four decades after his death, they continue to reel inside the psychic tornado Jung created during his lifetime, caught between the opposing forces of his admirers and critics and between their own filial loyalties and history’s pressing tendency to judge and rejudge its own playmakers.

As a result of all of these factors, the Red Book's publication next month seems to arouse apprehension as much as excitement from everyone involved. Corbett observes that its publication

is a victory for someone, but it is too early yet to say for whom.

... The relationship between the Jungs and the people who are inspired by Jung is, almost by necessity, a complex symbiosis. The Red Book — which on one hand described Jung’s self-analysis and became the genesis for the Jungian method and on the other was just strange enough to possibly embarrass the family — held a certain electrical charge. Martin recognized the descendants’ quandary. “They own it, but they haven’t lived it,” he said, describing Jung’s legacy. “It’s very consternating for them because we all feel like we own it. ... This is the greatest psychic explorer of the 20th century, and this book tells the story of his inner life.”

... The Red Book is not an easy journey — it wasn’t for Jung, it wasn’t for his family, nor for Shamdasani, and neither will it be for readers. The book is bombastic, baroque and like so much else about Carl Jung, a willful oddity, synched with an antediluvian and mystical reality. The text is dense, often poetic, always strange. The art is arresting and also strange. Even today, its publication feels risky, like an exposure.

The book will be reproduced for mass consumption (as every icon should) early next month by W. W. Norton. The original Red Book will soon be on public exhibit (as every relic should) at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Miniatures too small to read

Julia O'Brien blogs about seeing the exhibit of miniature books at Baltimore's Walters Art Museum.

There were small mosaics, small sculptures, small shipping guides, but mostly small religious texts. Small Psalters. Small Qurans. And small Bibles.

Some of these miniatures were functional, actually used by readers even before the days of bifocals. They allowed people to have words that were portable and private-- pocket editions.

But many were clearly too small to be read. It's hard to imagine how they were even produced. These texts weren't reading material; they functioned atropaically--as amulets , talismans, good luck pieces. These Bibles were owned, touched, tucked away, treasured. But not read. The idea of the Bible mattered more than its content

Indeed! But the fact that more texts than just the Bible get subjected to such miniaturization shows that the iconic potential of books is not limited to scriptures, though they provide the most extreme examples.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Google Imitates Print

Google is introducing FastFlip, a new interface for online publications that, according to the Associate Press,
is meant to duplicate the look and feel of perusing a printed publication. The stories are displayed on electronic pages that can be quickly scrolled through by clicking on large arrows on the side instead of a standard Web link that requires waiting several seconds for a page to load. Readers can sort through content based on topics, favorite writers and publications.

The rest of the story focuses on FastFlip's potential for diverting more advertising dollars to publishers. Of interest to this blog, though, is Google's embrace of technology to reproduce the experience (but certainly not the "feel"!) of print magazines and books. The "flipping" feature suggests that magazines are the real inspiration. Much more elaborate software to reproduce turning the pages of books has been used by the British Library for some time now to present rare books and manuscripts online. Much publicity recently surrounded the addition to this collection of the fourth-century C.E. manuscript of the Christian Bible, Codex Sinaiticus.

All of which illustrate the strength of the urge to reproduce the physical page in electronic form. In the case of rare manuscripts, there is at least a functional advantage to turning the electronic pages: codex books frustrate museum and library curators because only two pages can be shown at any one time. Visitors who would never be allowed to turn these rare pages can now do so electronically, often on a computer screen in the vicinity of the real manuscript.

But Google seems to be extending the principle to magazines purely in hopes of appealing to more readers. The iconic page exerts a strong pull on the electronic imagination!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Synopsis of Symposium 2009

Last week-end's Iconic Books Symposium was wonderful! Hamilton College welcomed us to its beautiful campus with fantastic weather. The presentations and discussions were lively and full of new information about how books and other texts function iconically in various cultures and contexts. There was a palpable sense among the participants that we've only touched the surface of this phenomenon and that this subject needs to explored much more thoroughly.

I have posted online a synopsis of the symposium discussions. Though it can't begin to reproduce the dynamics of the conversation, it will at least provide some idea of the materials and topics covered to those who couldn't be there.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Now on Facebook!

The Iconic Books Project now has its own page on Facebook, thanks to Brent Plate. Look for us under Groups: "Iconic Books."

Friday, September 4, 2009

Iconic Books Symposium Today!

The second Iconic Books Symposium begins today at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. I hope to see many of you there. For those who can't come, I will post a synopsis of the discussions online afterwards.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

New International Version to be Updated

Biblica announced today that it is preparing an "update" of "the world's most popular Bible." The press release accompanying the announcement presents an array of points worth considering in the transmission of an iconic text, including the positioning of the new NIV in the tradition (and on the 400th anniversary) of the KJV, the expressed goals of the new translation, and the claim to the authority to make the translation:
"We want to reach English speakers across the globe with a Bible that is accurate, accessible and that speaks to its readers in a language they can understand," said Keith Danby, Global President and CEO of Biblica. "This is why we are recommitting ourselves today to the original NIV charter, complete with its charge to monitor and reflect developments in English usage and Biblical scholarship by regularly updating the NIV Bible text.

"As time passes and English changes, the NIV we have at present is becoming increasingly dated. If we want a Bible that English speakers around the world can understand, we have to listen to, and respect, the vocabulary they are using today."

The CBT [Committee on Bible Translation] represents the very best in evangelical biblical scholarship and its members are drawn from denominations across the world. As an independent body, it alone has the authority to revise and update the text of the NIV Bible.

"The committee exists to ensure that the NIV continues to articulate the words of God, as we find them recorded in the original languages, in a form of English that is comprehensible to the broadest possible audience," said CBT Chairman, Professor Douglas Moo.

"As a committee, our response to this challenge has always been to follow the example of the original Bible writers who wrote in forms of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek that reflected the language spoken by the everyday working people of their day. Just as the New Testament is written in 'Koine' or 'common' Greek, our aim with the NIV Bible is — and has always been — to translate the Bible into what you might call 'Koine' or 'common' English.

"So it is fitting that the new edition of the NIV Bible will be coming out in 2011, the year which marks the 400th anniversary of the King James Version," said Moo. "Our goal in the NIV Bible translation mirrors that of the 17th Century translators themselves: to produce a Bible that removes all unnecessary obstacles to comprehension by drawing on the best available scholarship."