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.)

Friday, April 30, 2010

The Law Library at Yale University is displaying volumes from its rare book collection that have been bound using other texts as scrap material. The exhibit, "Reused, Rebound, Recovered: Medieval Manuscript Fragments in Law Book Bindings," includes these twelve small volumes of the Corpus iuris civilis, published in Lyons by Guillame Rouille in 1581, which have been neatly covered by pages from a biblical manuscript, ca. 1350-1450. For more pictures, see Nancy Matoon's discussion of the exhibit on Book Patrol.

This example shows that the relative iconicity of texts varies considerably in time and place, and not just in the contemporary rare book market.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

From Web to Coffee Table

Online Colleges, which provides a clearinghouse of information about online degrees, has placed on its blog a list of 50 Most Beautiful and Brilliant Books for Your Coffee Table. At first, I was bemused by an organization advocating online education tauting coffee table books. Then I realized this illustrates a claim we have publicized here before, namely, that as information becomes increasingly digital, books will be valued for their material form as much as for their contents. Of course, this has always been the case, but the digitization of information makes the values attached to iconic books more and more apparent.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Shape of the Decalogue Tablets

Menachem Wecker in the Jewish Press surveys the shape of the Decalogue in Jewish art, especially late medieval illuminated manuscripts. Though the stereotypical round-topped double tablets appear in the Sarajevo Haggadah (right, ca. 1350), he also finds rectangles, single tablets, and framed texts. No standard shape or depiction carries the day, though Wecker observes that

the claim Jews envision the tablets in the rectangular while Christians hold them to have been rounded does not stand. For the most part, Jewish artists do seem to have followed the grammar of the biblical phrase luchot avanim (tablets of stone) or luchot ha'brit (tablets of the law), which is always presented in the plural, while many Christian artists attached the two tablets to each other.

Perhaps the most interesting depiction is in the Alba Bible (left). Wecker comments:

The tablets seem positioned to squash Moses' head, and if one examines them carefully, one notices that the text - which is not carved into the rock, but painted on top of it - sometimes overflows the allotted space and hangs midair, particularly in the third commandment. It is almost tempting to read the white space surrounding the letters as empty space, in which case the artist has interpreted the forms of the letters as all being miraculously suspended.

Relic Torah

The problem with relics has always been verifying their authenticity. This is no less true of relic texts. The New York Times reports that once questions were raised about the whether a particular Torah scroll survived the Holocaust or not, the donor felt constrained to provide another with a better attested Holocaust lineage:

... after The New York Times published an article about the Torah and the Maryland rabbi, Menachem Youlus, questions surfaced about how it came to be discovered.

As a result, David M. Rubenstein — a billionaire financier who had bought the Torah from Rabbi Youlus and donated it to Central Synagogue — sought to confirm the scroll’s authenticity. Mr. Rubinstein ... hired Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust historian and former director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Holocaust Research Institute.

“What I found is the claim for the origin of the Torah could not be verified,” Dr. Berenbaum said last week.

... Dr. Berenbaum had him find a Torah “whose Holocaust provenance is not in question” — it was the one placed in the ark on Monday. That Torah had remained in the Romanian Jewish community through the Holocaust and was later taken to Israel
The significance of using a genuine Holocaust torah scroll was expressed by both the donor and the synagogue's rabbi:

Mr. Rubenstein said he had donated the Torah to Central Synagogue “so its congregants could have the sacred experience of reading Scripture from a scroll that had survived the Holocaust.”

“As one who has gone to the camps and assimilates into my being the horror of the Holocaust,” Rabbi Rubinstein said at the time, “this gives meaning to Jewish survival.”

The Washington Post reported on October 11, 2012, that Rabbi Menachem Youlus pleaded guilty and was convicted of selling fake Holocaust scrolls and defrauding investors.
Youlus, the self-proclaimed “Jewish Indiana Jones” ... spun cloak-and-dagger tales of “rescuing” sacred Torah scrolls lost during the Holocaust, but those tales were lies. ... Despite Youlus’s claims that he found holy relics at concentration camps, in monasteries and in mass graves, passport records show he never traveled to Europe. ... More than 50 of his purported Holocaust Torahs made their way to congregations in the Washington area and beyond. Synagogues held emotional ceremonies to rededicate the scrolls for worship — a symbolic show of Jewish triumph over Hitler.
Youlus was sentenced to 51 months in prison and ordered to pay $990,366.05 in restitution.

Rising Prices for "Iconic Books"

Bruce McKinney, in Americana Exchange, see a developing distinction in rare book markets between

the increasingly separate iconic and traditional rare book, manuscript and ephemera markets. They have been moving in diverging [directions] for some time. Great examples of rare and unique items have been selling for substantial prices while no less rare but less known and less coveted material has gone unsold or brought lower than expected prices. As the market has become increasingly transparent the many now see what the few have long known and it is changing what people buy and how much they pay. We are living through a time of significant change: the re-pricing of the market. The iconic category looks safe, pedestrian rarities risky, the in-between the subject of endless interpretation.
He credits this separation to "increasing transparency and increasingly unified markets functioning in real [time]," with the result that "highly collectible material should continue to do well while lesser materials continue to leak value."

McKinney's definition of an "iconic book" as "highly collectible" overlaps considerably with this blogs use of the term. But we also draw attention to books that are commonplace yet revered and ritually privileged, like scriptures. My experience with last summer's garage sale shows, though, that iconicity makes even the most commonplace Bibles collectible.

(h/t David Stam)

Missing Covers

Motoko Rich complains in the New York Times that in the era of Kindles, Nooks, and IPads, "You can't tell a book by its cover if it doesn't have one."

Among other changes heralded by the e-book era, digital editions are bumping book covers off the subway, the coffee table and the beach. That is a loss for publishers and authors, who enjoy some free advertising for their books in printed form ...

As publishers explore targeted advertising on Google and other search engines or social networking sites, they figure that a digital cover remains the best way to represent a book

I think they'll have to do more than that, because the association between a book and its cover will be lost if readers don't see it every time they start to read.

Meanwhile, monks that bind books to support their monasteries find the business falling off, reports the Catholic Sentinel. In this case, the culprit is the development of digital journal archives by university libraries. The Trappists of Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey (Lafayette, OR) are
not completely losing accounts, but the amount of work sent in by customers has plummeted. During the 1980s, the monks bound about 50,000 books per year. By 2000, the number slid to 40,000 and now it stands at 23,000.

Bookshelf Wallpaper

Cavern, a boutique wallpaper design company, includes in its line this bookshelf design by Tom Slaughter. The bright colors give this a modernist feel, in contrast to most book decoration schemes that try to evoke Victorian, or older, periods.