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.)

Monday, January 25, 2010

Writing rather than Reading

Though on this blog we generally pay attention to material books, it is worth pointing out the iconic status of authors. Both the book and the status of author seem to be more desirable than actually reading, as a blog of the Virginia Quarterly Review points out:

Here at VQR we currently have more than ten times as many submitters each year as we have subscribers. And there’s very, very little overlap. We know—we’ve checked. So there’s an ever-growing number of people writing and submitting fiction, but there’s an ever-dwindling number of people reading the best journals that publish it.

For commentary on this situation and its (possible) relationship to the internet, see Dan Visel's comments on if:book.

Book Addiction

Stephen Gertz on Book Patrol reflects on the case of Irving Leif, who though facing financial ruin can't bring himself to sell his book collection. The post becomes more interesting though as Gertz reflects on his own experience as a hard-up collector:

The period 1988-1999 was one of great difficulty and there were times when I had to consider selling my books. It was a wrenching decision - and my collection was no where near the size or value of Leif’s. I resisted, muddling along somehow, finding money someplace else, or just letting debt slide as I hunkered down in my house of books. The books comforted me; they were my friends. I think I also had the inchoate sense that to sell was to admit failure, not as a collector but as an adult. My self-worth was directly tied to the collection.

But there comes a time, and it came for me, when an extremely cold shower and hard slap are necessary to awaken dormant reality. The books have to go. It was, without over-dramatizing the situation, one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make. I made it and began to sell off, a few books at a time, the whole of my collection to a dealer I knew and trusted ...

And then the most amazing thing happened: My life opened up. It was as if I had been clinging to a sinking rock to keep it (and myself) afloat. When I let go, I rose to the surface, alive and able to breathe.

I’ve become superstitious about establishing a new collection; I don’t want to mess with karma. The comfort I feel amongst rare and antiquarian books is satisfied by my work in the trade; I’m surrounded by them every day. I don’t need to own them

Gertz's words echo not just psychological but religious language. And while I suspect that addictions to various kinds of objects and substances could be depicted similarly, it seems that experiences with books are especially susceptible to being described this way.

Haiti's libraries and books

Among all the other tragedies, artifacts of Haiti's cultural heritage seem to have been severely damaged by the earthquake. As reported on the SHARP-L listserv, most libraries collapsed, though the National Archives survived. As we've noted with Timbuktu's historical documents, however, the New York Times reports that many of Haiti's most important texts were being preserved in private homes.

Among the truths bared by the quake was the reality that, after so many years of government dysfunction, private groups and individuals had become some of the most important protectors of the country’s treasures.

Many of the country’s most valuable historical texts, for instance, were owned by individuals, and preserved at their homes — rather than under glass or in wood-walled libraries as they might have been in Washington or other moneyed capitals.

So last week, as they have done so many times since their country’s latest tragedy struck, Haitians again stepped up to perform rescues themselves because other help was slow in coming.

Patrick Vilaire, a sculptor, met on Thursday night with others concerned about saving some of the country’s legacy from looters or further building collapses. They put at the top of their agenda preserving the book collections at two private homes, a cache of irreplaceable history, political and economic texts from the 19th and 20th centuries.

Asked how he could focus on old books after such a catastrophic event, Mr. Vilaire said, “The dead are dead, we know that. But if you don’t have the memory of the past, the rest of us can’t continue living

(h/t Germaine Warkentin)

Monday, January 18, 2010

Writing Torah and the Power of Prayer

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports on the ceremonial restoration of a Torah scroll.

While inking ceremonies are a tradition when a synagogue gets a new scroll, the honor of lettering in the last words typically goes to the rabbi or congregation president.

But like most of the immigrant rowhouse synagogues of a century ago, Shivtei Yeshuron, founded in 1876, does not have its own rabbi. And so it allowed any adult Jew who came through the doors yesterday to step up to the bimah, or Torah platform, and take up Youlus' quill pen

Participating in such a miqveh "good work" is generally believe to bring blessings, but Torah scribe Menachem Youlus was very specific as he explained the importance of the act:

"This is the highest form of charity. When you fill in your letter you will have God's undivided attention.

"Even with all the six and a half billion people in the world, God will be listening at that moment only to your prayers. And so you can change the world.

"You can ask God for peace in the Middle East," he said. "You can ask for an end to world hunger. And if there is someone you know who is deceased, you can ask God to move that person's soul closer to him."

"This is your one opportunity to change things," Youlus said, grinning broadly. "You get to play God. And there's nothing wrong with playing God

Many participants were overcome with emotion:

After each inking of a letter with Youlus' help, a member of the congregation recorded in a notebook the precise chapter, verse, line, and letter - an aleph, or lamed, or shin, or resh - that each person filled in.

One of the many women who lettered the Torah also said she felt overwhelmed by the occasion.

"Just being allowed, as a woman, to do something like this was an honor, a thrill," said a woman who gave her name only as Phyllis.

After identifying the exact letter - a tau - she had inked, she pulled open an English translation of her Torah portion and studied it closely.

It was Genesis 1:2. "Now the Earth was unformed and void," she read.

"From now on," she said, "that's going to be my verse.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Timbuktu's Old Books (5): The Moral for Libraries

Bryan Campen, writing on the Long Now blog, draws an interesting moral from news of the survival of old manuscripts in the private possession of Timbuktu families:

It is interesting that that so many families were able to preserve these manuscripts for so long. What caused this culture of long term preservation?

Consider the Library of Alexandria, which Stewart Brand covers in Clock of the Long Now. It experienced at least four fires, two from “collateral damage” by Ptolemy VIII (88 B.C.E) and Julius Caesar (47 B.C.E.), and two from religions on the rise (Christianity and Islam).

The ability to preserve these books over many centuries so far rests with families intent on honoring and adhering to requests from ancestors, a rather small and fragile model compared to the infrastructure needed to build a great library. Yet it is possible that a family with instructions from ancestors is, in some sense, a better library than a library itself.

Six hundred years ago, Timbuktu was packed with university students (at about 25,000, the size of a modestly large mid-western university these days) and a constant flow of merchants. It was a nexus of trade and intellectual life on the continent which then slowed. Perhaps because it did not intersect with the dramatic tension between three continents, like Alexandria, it was less prone both to collateral damage *and* the request by military or religious leaders to dispose of books not relevant to the prevailing winds. In any case, this slowing may well have ensured greater preservation over time.

It’s also confirmation that a library in the middle of a continent–away from the intersection of countries, military conquests and ascendant religious movements–is a really good idea. With “ancient-book fever” now in Timbuktu, some combination of library and family models will have to preserve them

Friday, January 8, 2010

Fine Art of Book Destruction

A Mixed Media Work Created By Lee Child For Speaking Volumes: Transforming Hate.
(Photo Courtesy Of Linda Thompson For The Missoulian.)

Nancy Mattoon on Book Patrol describes the exhibit, "Speaking Volumes: Transforming Hate" which opened January 7th at the University of Montana's Mansfield Library. She provides an excellent analysis of the controversy over it. The books in question were written by white supremacist Ben Klassen (died 1993) and circulated by his Church of the Creator. When 4000 copies fell into the hands of the Montana Human Rights Network, they commissioned area artists "to provoke discussion about racism, anti-Semitism, and intolerance."

Works created for the exhibit include a re-edit of one book's text by Charles Gute, which reverses the original message; a short story--which completely ignored the books-- about racism written and illustrated by children's book author Faith Ringgold; a book with every word individually cut out, leaving only a lacy, white series of spider-webbed pages by Ariana Boussard-Reifel; and “Hate Begins At Home,” a 10-by-10-foot house constructed from the books--nearly 3,000 of them-- by Dana Boussard.

This year's debut of the expanded exhibit has drawn fire from those on both ends of the political spectrum. An article praising the exhibit as a positive transformation of hate into art, akin to making lemons into lemonade, has drawn 18 online comments so far

Mattoon quotes many of the comments before drawing her conclusion:

Censorship is always a tricky topic. Most of us find it very easy to be against it, until we are confronted with something we find completely unacceptable. Then the conversation changes, and freedom of the press no longer applies to whatever it is we've decided is simply intolerable. Too bad that what is objectionable to one person might be the gospel of another.

Right. The story illustrates vividly how the incipient iconicity of (most) books is mobilized to generate political outrage.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

International Ownership Dispute Over Dead Sea Scrolls

Speaking of ownership, late last year Jordan asked Canada to seize and hold Dead Sea Scrolls currently on temporary display in Toronto, according to the Globe and Mail:

Summoning the Canadian chargé d'affaires in Amman two weeks ago, Jordan cited the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, to which both Jordan and Canada are signatories, in asking Canada to take custody of the scrolls.

Jordan claims Israel acted illegally in 1967 when it took the scrolls from a museum in east Jerusalem, which Israel seized from Jordan during the Six-Day War and subsequently occupied. The Hague Convention, which is concerned with safeguarding cultural property during wartime, requires each signatory “to take into its custody cultural property imported into its territory either directly or indirectly from any occupied territory. This shall either be effected automatically upon the importation of the property or, failing this, at the request of the authorities of that territory

Canada, however, refused to do so, as reported by CBC News:

... the Canadian government issued a statement at the end of the year in reaction to Jordan's request saying that "differences regarding ownership of the Dead Sea scrolls should be addressed by Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. It would not be appropriate for Canada to intervene as a third party."

Very clear from all the news coverage are the identity issues at stake for the governments (Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority) involved. Every side tries to employ the scrolls as relic texts to legitimize their own group:

On Sunday, Israeli officials released a statement saying the Jordanian claims are "completely ridiculous" and that the scrolls have little or no connection to Jordan's history.

... Jordan contends Israel acted illegally in 1967 when it took the scrolls from a museum in East Jerusalem, which Israel seized from Jordan during the Six-Day War.

Palestinians have argued the scrolls, dating as far back as 250 BC, are an integral part of their heritage also

Timbuktu's Old Books (4)

The Washington Post has an update (see our previous posts here, here, and here) about the efforts to collect and preserve Timbuktu's ancient manuscripts, which have been preserved in private family collections (see article for excellent pictures; see also the different discussion by Nancy Mattoon on Book Patrol).

Although the books began to resurface in the 1970s, when Mali created the Ahmed Baba Institute, efforts to preserve them have gained momentum in recent years. South Africa has been a key player. The nation's scholarly former president, Thabo Mbeki, viewed the manuscripts as a tool for addressing "an urgent need to rethink Africa . . . an urgent need for Africa to define herself," as he said in a 2008 speech.

Early this year, archivists and curators trained by South Africa will take up residence at the Ahmed Baba Institute's new building. The 30,000-volume collection -- complete with a 17th-century Koran written on the skin of a gazelle -- will move into its climate-controlled rooms.

There is space for 100,000 books. Haidara said he is trying to persuade families to ensure their books' protection by selling them to the library, but it is a difficult task.

"This is the family heritage. You don't give it away," he said. "We are trying to raise their awareness."

... The effort has been slow going. Travel warnings about Islamist insurgents in the area have deterred tourists. And most of the books remain in private hands and will probably stay that way: Many owners refuse to part with their books on the instructions of ancestors, but they struggle to raise funds to restore or display them

The story here is not only about efforts to preserve Timbuktu's literary heritage, but also about the rival claims of private and public ownership. We have observed that conflict over ownership of iconic texts in many parts of the world (for other posts about this, click the label "ownership" at left).

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Burning Books to Stay Warm

Of course, books' iconic status does not protect them when life gets harsh. Metro news in Britain reports that as temperatures have plummeted and energy prices soared, many people are staying warm by burning books:

Volunteers have reported that ‘a large number’ of elderly customers are snapping up hardbacks as cheap fuel for their fires and stoves.

... Workers at one charity shop in Swansea, in south Wales, described how the most vulnerable shoppers were seeking out thick books such as encyclopaedias for a few pence because they were cheaper than coal.

One assistant said: ‘Book burning seems terribly wrong but we have to get rid of unsold stock for pennies and some of the pensioners say the books make ideal slow-burning fuel for fires and stoves. A lot of them buy up large hardback volumes so they can stick them in the fire to last all night.’

A 500g book can sell for as little as 5p, while a 20kg bag of coal costs £5.

(h/t Michael Lieberman of Book Patrol)