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, September 26, 2010

Privatization vs. "Sacred" Public Libraries

The New York Times reports that a private company, Library Systems & Services, has been hired to manage public libraries in California, Oregon, Tennessee and Texas. CEO Frank E. Pezzasnite describes the resistance he has encountered to such privatization with frustrated sarcasm: "There’s this American flag, apple pie thing about libraries. Somehow they have been put in the category of a sacred organization."

The reaction has been mostly led by patrons who say they cannot imagine Santa Clarita with libraries run for profit.

“A library is the heart of the community,” said one opponent, Jane Hanson. “I’m in favor of private enterprise, but I can’t feel comfortable with what the city is doing here.”

... The suggestion that a library is different — and somehow off limits to the outsourcing fever — has been echoed wherever L.S.S.I. has gone.

... “Public libraries invoke images of our freedom to learn, a cornerstone of our democracy,” Deanna Hanashiro, a retired teacher, said at the most recent city council meeting.
Whatever one may think of Mr. Pezzasnite's business, he has described an overlooked phenomena. Why books and the libraries that contain them are regarded as "somehow ... sacred" is precisely what the Iconic Books Project tries to describe, on this blog, through our symposia, and in our publications...

NY Gentiles' inherited Mezuzahs

A recent New York Times article about mezuzahs left behind in apartments after their Jewish residents move out points out one very good illustration of how the iconic dimension of sacred texts is often venerated and manipulated across religious lines:

The doorways inside 30 Ocean Parkway, an Art Deco building in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, are studded with mezuzas of all sizes and styles: plastic, pewter, simple, gaudy, elegant.

The people behind those doors are an assortment, too: Catholics, Baptists, Episcopalians, Buddhists, atheists and even a few observing the High Holy Days this week.

... Jews have left their mark on every aspect of New York life, but perhaps none are so ubiquitous and tangible as the palm-length encasements attached to countless doorways. So in a city that both savors history and likes to shake things up, it is perhaps inevitable that many of those mezuzas now belong to gentiles.

Left behind when Jewish residents died or moved out, they have survived apartment turnovers, renovations, co-op conversions, paint jobs and other changes wrought by time.

... Jews leaving a home are expected to leave the mezuzas behind if they believe the next residents will also be Jewish. If not, they must take the mezuza with them, to guard against the possibility that a non-Jew might desecrate it, knowingly or not. If a mezuza becomes too weathered, dirty or otherwise damaged, it is to be buried, as are all sacred documents, a service that a rabbi or synagogue can facilitate.

Non-Jews, naturally, are not bound by these customs, but many follow them out of deference. Alex Cohen of Borough Park, Brooklyn, who sells, installs and inspects mezuzas under the business name Mezuzah Man, said he had answered calls from non-Jews asking him to remove their mezuzas. The mezuzas should be handled respectfully, he said: “You don’t just put it in the garbage.”

But many gentiles choose to keep their piece of Judaica in place. “It’s good karma, if I can mix my religious metaphors,” said Brian Hallas .... The prospect of such a paint scar is what kept Eleanor Rodgers from removing the mezuza from the doorway of her home on Albemarle Road in Brooklyn, in a heavily Jewish neighborhood. “We’re not only not Jewish, we dislike organized religion,” said Mrs. Rodgers, a doctor’s receptionist who grew up in Ireland.

... But the idea does not sit right with some observant Jews who see the mezuza as an important emblem of Jewish identity. “To me, it’s very offensive,” said Sara Sloan, a retired schoolteacher in Windsor Terrace. “It’s taking my custom.”

... Still, Connie Peirce, 87, a retired secretary and Catholic who lives in Peter Cooper Village in Manhattan, said she often wished she had inherited a mezuza like many of her non-Jewish neighbors did. The tradition recalled her youth, she said, when her local priest appeared each Easter to write “God bless this house” on her family’s front door.

To her delight, one of her Jewish neighbors recently hung a mezuza on her doorway. “Every time I come home and remember, I kiss it and touch it and then I bless myself, saying, ‘In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.’ ”

OED online only

Jenny Hendrix, writing on the New Yorker's blog The Book Bench, reacts to the news that the third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary will not be printed, but only available online. (Oxford University Press immediately denied that any decision had been made). Hendrix points out the impact of the immense dictionary's material bulk:

The second edition weighs in at a hundred and thirty-five pounds—about as much as the average woman—and fills four feet of shelf space. Weight and size are central to the idea of what the O.E.D. is; authority, in dictionaries, seems to come proportionate to mass, and when it comes to dictionaries, the O.E.D.’s authority is supreme. I have a sense that a weightless O.E.D., instead of being the last word in words, would become just more “information” of the sort that’s found everywhere online.

... I can’t help but feel that if the printed O.E.D. were to disappear, our language would suddenly feel a little less important. We won’t be able to look at its twenty volumes on our shelves and see just how impressive a thing a language is. Random browsing might become less common, and words might fall out of use as a result. Though serendipity remains possible online, it will be a sad day when we no longer have the joy of stumbling by chance on an exotic, beautiful, and exactly perfect word by opening randomly to one of the O.E.D.’s twenty-two thousand pages.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Illuminated Arabic Manuscripts in Munich

As part of Changing Views, a city-wide exhibition of Muslim art in Munich, the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek is exhibiting its collection of illuminated manuscripts from Islamic cultures. Titled "The Wonder of Creation," it includes many exceptional pieces, such as these angels from a manuscript of Sakariya al-Kaswinis' "Cosmography" (1280). The exhibit runs from September through January.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Virtual Book Burning and Its Consequences

On Religion Dispatches, Laurie Patton uses the idea of iconic books to meditate on last week's Virtual Book Burning and Its Consequences. She notes as I did in my last post that Pastor Terry Jones played on long-established tropes of book-burning that go back to antiquity. But she also points out the new effects of media and electronic communication:

... the Gainesville event might be the final culmination of the age of hijackers, where a small group’s manipulation of a powerful vehicle has far-reaching disastrous effects. Only in this case, the vehicle is the Qur’an, not an airplane. And the manipulation need only be virtual. Never has book burning been so effective without even occurring. Symbolic actions on the internet and their consequences in the real world now occur almost simultaneously. And the threat of a symbolic gesture and an actual one become one and the same.

Let me go even one step further. One could even say that the suggestion of book-burning is the only possible form of effective action today—far more effective than the book burning itself. In the twenty-first century it is virtually impossible (pun intended) to destroy books as a way of entirely eradicating a class of information, as Diocletian and many other emperors wanted to do. This is impossible to do because books are no longer physical objects but also electronic ones. It is also impossible to do because even electronic destruction may not be effective. At best, no matter how widespread a computer virus (a contemporary version of book-burning), there is no guarantee that such destruction would be complete.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Threats to Burn Qur'ans

Now that the 9/11 anniversary has passed, no Qur'ans were burned, and the media hype is dwindling, I feel free to blog about Pastor Terry Jones's threat to burn Muslim scriptures. I have written before about scripture desecrations, especially of Qur'ans, and this incident bears out many of those conclusions. It provides a vivid example of

1. the power of scripture desecration, or talk about it, to focus media attention and therefore political discourse;

2. the difficulties that religious and political authorities have in controlling such talk and actions (in this case, the threat of desecration was diverted, but only after extraordinarily unified efforts by political and religious leaders of all kinds);

3. the degree to which mass publication of scriptures has placed the means for such acts in many people's hands;

4. the mass media's amplification of the effects of scripture desecration.

The chief difference between last week's news and previous reportage about desecrated Qur'ans is that this time, the news was generated by threats to burn them at a future time. Whereas the strict anti-blasphemy laws of countries such as Pakistan and Israel make charges of past scripture desecration potent weapons of political or personal conflict, American legal protections of free-speech allow threats of future scripture desecrations to polarize public opinion.

With that addendum, the story unfortunately shows again that “the prevalence of modern news media means that iconic scriptures provide convenient tools for both giving offense and taking offense, and today’s politics give many people reasons to do both” (Watts 2009).

The draw-backs of e-newspapers

Finally, one purveyer of e-texts admits (one of) their drawbacks in comparison with traditional newspapers:

Monday, September 6, 2010

Reading Media Wars Hit Home

The New York Times on September 1st documented the divide over reading media within some (many?) families.

Couples find themselves torn over the “right way” to read. At bedtime, a couple might sit side-by-side, one turning pages by lamplight and the other reading Caecilia font in E Ink on a Kindle or backlighted by the illuminated LCD screen of an iPad, each quietly judgmental.

Although there are no statistics on how widespread the battles are, the publishing industry is paying close attention, trying to figure out how to market books to households that read in different ways.

A few publishers and bookstores are testing the bundling of print books with e-books at a discount. Barnes & Noble started offering bundles in June at about 50 stores and plans to expand the program in the fall

The quotations that follow provide ample examples of the rhetoric that has become standard in the debate over e-readers, contrasting the "look-and-feel" of books to the presumed inevitability of the digital revolution.

The Place of Reading in American History

The American Antiquities Society has created a wonderful online exhibit, A Place of Reading. It demonstrates the interesting result, and also the the difficulty, of the sub-field of the history of reading within book history. It also illustrates the strong value placed on reading and literacy in American history, such as in this 1764 engraving by Isaiah Thomas illustrating a mother’s "religious and social responsibility in teaching her children to read."

A Bloody Relic Book

The British Library's online exhibit, "Treasures Known and Unknown" collected and annotated by John Lowden, calls attention to a remarkable 15th century manuscript, MS Egerton 1821. This devotional book contain two rosaries and a litany, Lowden tells us,

begins with three pages, each painted black, on which large drops of blood trickle down. The third page has been thoroughly worn. I am not absolutely certain this is the result of kissing, and part of it has been rubbed and smudged rather than merely kissed, but I think it very well could have been partially erased by kissing.

[A few pages later] the pages turn blood red, and thick gouts of blood pour down them from innumerable wounds. This disturbing decoration continues for ten consecutive pages (the last folio was cut out at some date, leaving only a stub). I count approximately 540 wounds on the bloodiest page, so perhaps taken together they were intended to represent the 5400 or more wounds received by Christ according to texts of late medieval devotion.

There are two openings like this before one reaches a third with two further woodcuts pasted in. The first represents a Man of Sorrows surrounded by twenty small compartments with instruments of the passion. Facing it is a larger woodcut of the five wounds of Christ with a heart at the centre over a cross. The left image (think back to the miniature in Harley 2985) carries an indulgence (later defaced): ‘To all them that devoutly say five Pater nosters, five Aves, and a Creed afore such a figure are granted 32,755 years of pardon.’

Lowden notes that "The book that follows this extraordinary prefatory matter is mostly written not in black ink but in the brilliant red pigment used for the blood." Obviously, an extreme and vivid example of a relic text that fully justifies our comparing the uses of such texts with icons.

(h/t Seren Gates Amador)

Garden of decomposing books

The Jardin de la Conaissance (Garden of Knowledge), a library garden and art installation made of 40,000 books, is part of the 11th International Garden Festival in the Jardins des M├ętis in Quebec's Lower St. Lawrence region. The artists, Rodney LaTourelle and Thilo Folkerts, say that by "exposing these fragile and supposedly timeless cultural artifacts to the processes of decomposition... The garden becomes a sensual reading room; a library; an information platform; an invitation to a provocatively foreign realm of knowledge." At the end of the festival, the books will be composted and recycled.

For more, see Treehugger.com and Refordgardens.com.

(h/t Wendy Bousfield)