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.)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Creating Relics of Endangered Alphabets

Tim Brookes has been documenting the world's alphabetic heritage by carving specimens on local curly maple in his Endangered Alphabets Project. The website explains his motivation:
Every one of the Endangered Alphabets (Inuktitut, Baybayin, Manchu, Bugis, Bassa Vah, Cherokee, Samaritan, Mandaic, Syriac, Khmer, Pahauh Hmong, Balinese, Tifinagh and Nom), carved and painted into a slab of Vermont curly maple, challenges our assumptions about language, about beauty, about the fascinating interplay between function and grace that takes place when we invent symbols for the sounds we speak, and when we put a word on a page—or a piece of bamboo, or a palm leaf.

The text in each case is Article One of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Brookes chose these alphabets because:
Writing has become so dominated by a small number of global cultures that those 6,000-7,000 languages are written in fewer than 100 alphabets. Moreover, at least a third of the world’s remaining alphabets are endangered–-no longer taught in schools, no longer used for commerce or government, understood only by a few elders, restricted to a few monasteries or used only in ceremonial documents, magic spells, or secret love letters.

The Atlantic, in describing his work, commented: "Letters in carved wood filled with black enamel paint ... make everything sharper and convey something of the awe of ancient inscriptions." Brookes art should certainly serve the purpose of relics, which is to contain and preserve things of great value, in this case, alphabets.

(h/t Fine Books and Collections)

The burden of saving a book collection

In June, numerous media outlets (e.g. 1, 2) reported on the problems of Shaunna Raycraft of Saskatoon. She saved a collection of 350,000 books when a neighbor threatened to burn them. She and her husband brought a small house onto their property to store the books, but the weight of 30 tons of books threatened to collapse the building.
Raycraft tried selling the books on eBay, and to collectors and used book stores, but no one wants the task of sorting through them. ... "We are kind of at a standstill," said Raycraft. "I work at two jobs. My husband is a full-time student. We have three kids and no time. And no money. And so we're at the point now where were looking at having to burn some of the books ourselves."

The news coverage prompted almost twenty people to volunteer to help sort and dispose of the books. I have not found any later reports of how that effort is going.

Internet (Physical) Archive

The Internet Archive was founded in 1996 to build an Internet library to offer permanent access for researchers, historians, and scholars to historical collections that exist in digital format. But this year it announced that it is also creating a physical archive to back-up its digital collection.
A reason to preserve the physical book that has been digitized is that it is the authentic and original version that can be used as a reference in the future. If there is ever a controversy about the digital version, the original can be examined. A seed bank such as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is seen as an authoritative and safe version of crops we are growing. Saving physical copies of digitized books might at least be seen in a similar light as an authoritative and safe copy that may be called upon in the future.

As the Internet Archive has digitized collections and placed them on our computer disks, we have found that the digital versions have more and more in common with physical versions. The computer hard disks, while holding digital data, are still physical objects. As such we archive them as they retire after their 3-5 year lifetime. Similarly, we also archive microfilm, which was a previous generation’s access format. So hard drives are just another physical format that stores information. This connection showed us that physical archiving is still an important function in a digital era.
They are therefore creating a facility that can accomodate up to ten million items in long term storage.

They are accepting donations of large collections and libraries. Their comments about the donors feelings are pertinent to this blog:
Working with donors of books has been rewarding because an alternative for many of these books was the used book market or being destroyed. We have found everyone involved has a visceral repulsion to destroying books.

Arcimboldo's Librarian

Michael Lieberman on Book Patrol lays some markers for tracking the influence of Giuseppe Arcimboldo's painting, The Librarian, in the sixteenth and twentieth centuries.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Arguing over digital texts

In July, James Glieck writing in the New York Times Sunday Review, meditated on the digitization and web publication of rare manuscripts and books by libraries around the world. He celebrated the advantages of open access for historical research and derides critics of digitization such as Tristam Handy, who wrote in the Guardian that "it is only with MS in hand that the real meaning of the text becomes apparent: its rhythms and cadences, the relationship of image to word, the passion of the argument or cold logic of the case." Glieck responded:

I think it’s sentimentalism, and even fetishization. It’s related to the fancy that what one loves about books is the grain of paper and the scent of glue. ... We’re in the habit of associating value with scarcity, but the digital world unlinks them. ... Nor is obscurity a virtue. A hidden parchment page enters the light when it molts into a digital simulacrum. It was never the parchment that mattered.
Glieck did notice that desire for the material book, at least rare books and texts, continues unabated which he finds "odd":
Oddly, for collectors of antiquities, the pricing of informational relics seems undiminished by cheap reproduction — maybe just the opposite. ... Why is this tattered parchment valuable? Magical thinking. It is a talisman. The precious item is a trick of the eye. The real Magna Carta, the great charter of human rights and liberty, is available free online, where it is safely preserved. It cannot be lost or destroyed. An object like this — a talisman — is like the coffin at a funeral. It deserves to be honored, but the soul has moved on.
The label "magic" is the oldest (really: thousands of years old) put-down of scribal culture. This blog concurs with recent scholarship on magic that such polemics obscure transactions of real social power, whether in the form of magical objects or material (or, for that matter, digital) texts. We should therefore remember that a digital text, after all, is composed of matter too. It can certainly be destroyed (rather easily, in fact), and even all the copies of a text can disappear (less easily, but very likely as years turn into decades and centuries). When that happens, I doubt its soul will be any easier to find that those in human bodies.

E-Books and Print-On-Demand in the News

A busy spring and summer made me neglect this blog. It's time to dig into the accumulated pile of news of (iconic) books in the news. Doing so immediately reveals one advantage of procrastination: I can now pull together a series of items of about the rise of e-publishing.

In April, the American Association of Publishers revealed that the number of e-books sold in February surpassed the number of hardback and softback sales together. Digging further into statistics showed, however, that e-books grossed the published $90 million, print books still grossed $215 million. By September, the Association was reporting that e-book sales were taking market away from mass-market paperbacks in particular. And Michael Lieberman on Book Patrol pointed out the trend that the headlines missed:
While much of the focus has centered on the meteoric rise of e-books and their effect on the publishing industry it is the print-on-demand segment that has really taken off. In 2010 there were almost 8 times the number of print-on-demand titles then traditional titles!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

APHA Conference Early Bird deadline approaching

For folks who might be interested in attending the 2011 American Printing History Association conference in San Diego this fall, the deadline for Early Bird registration is this Thursday, September 15th.

The theme this year is "Printing from the Edge":

What have been the transformative moments in printing history that have changed the direction of printing, typography, papermaking, bookbinding, or book design, and moved us to a new edge? What are today’s frontiers? Where is tomorrow’s edge?
The conference takes place October 14-15 at UC San Diego. More information can be found here at the APHA website.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

SCRIPT-related events at the AAR/SBL

Iconic Books and SCRIPT events will be taking place during the simultaneous meetings of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) in San Francisco:

Friday, November 18, 9:00-4:30 - "What’s Next for Texts: Scripting Religion in a Networked World" - The Religion and Media Workshop

Sunday, November 20, 9:00-11:30 am - "The Arts of the Book: Reading Images, Looking at Words" - AAR's Arts, Literature, and Religion Section

Sunday, November 20, 1:00-3:30 pm - "The Materiality of Texts / The Word as Object" - SBL's Religious World of Late Antiquity Section

Monday, November 21, 6:00-8:00 pm - SCRIPT ANNUAL MEETING: Library Bar, Hotel Rex, 562 Sutter Street

Dault on NYTimes, Vatican and Bible

David Dault, on Material Scripture, compares Kenneth Woodward's characterization of the editors of the New York Times wielding cultural power like the "Magisterium" with the power of editors of mass-marketed Bibles. Dault had already compared Bible editors with the magisterium in his doctoral dissertation, and now brings the leading American newspaper into the same set of comparisons:

What interests me about Woodward's assertion above is the ideological power that is brought to bear when these magisterial effects are wedded with certain types of material objects. That editors and corporations control the content (and therefore, to an arguable extent, the possible readings) of books and newspapers is plain. But the Bible is not an ordinary book, just as the Times is no ordinary newspaper, in terms of the relative cultural power wielded by both.

By virtue (is this the proper word?) of their respective material presentations, the editorial decisions that go into the construction of an imprint of a Bible version or an issue of the Times are of an elevated ideological nature. Words in the New York Times are different, in their weight and influence, than similar words found in the Chattanooga Times, for example
Dault's comments are well worth reading and digesting in full. But including the NYT in this set of comparisons highlights one difference between mass-produced Bibles on the one hand and the newspaper and the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: for the latter two, prestige is vested in the institutions they represent and only derivatively in the documents they produce and distribute. Bibles, on the other hand, carry their prestige for being the material objects that they are; their publishers and editors are as likely to derive prestige from the product they produce.

Digital Destruction of Values

Alan Kaufman wrote an essay in Evergreen comparing the decimation of book culture by digitization to the holocaust:

the awful scene is reoccuring everywhere: venerable, much beloved bookstores closing and that portion of the populace who cherish books—an ever-shrinking minority—left baffled and bereft; a silent corporate Krystallnacht decimating the world of literacy.

The comparison prompted ridicule from Newsweek (note Kaufman's response at the bottom). But though overstated, I think Kaufman's piece is important for emphasizing the sense of sacrality that many people attach to books. He also points out the dualism inherant in the electronic separation of text from physical artifact:

[Mass media] in subtle ways positions the destruction of book culture like so: “books” in and of themselves are nothing, only another technology, like the Walkman or the laptop. What is sacred are the texts and those are being transferred to the Internet where they will attain a new kind of high-tech-assured immortality. Like dead souls leaving their earthly bodies the books are, in effect, going to a better place: the Kindle, the e-book, the web; hi-tech's version of Paradise.

... The book is fast becoming the despised Jew of our culture. Der Jude is now Der Book. Hi-tech propogandists tell us that the book is a tree-murdering, space-devouring, inferior form of technology; that society would simply be better-off altogether if we euthanized it even as we begin to carry around, like good little Aryans, whole libraries in our pockets, downloaded on the Uber-Kindle.

Further, we are told that to assign to books a particular value above and beyond their clearly inferior utility as a medium for language is to mark oneself as an irrelevant social throwback. ... As to the bookstore, it is like the synagogue under Hitler: the house of a doomed religion. And the paper book is its Torah and gravestone: a thing to burn, or use to pave the road to internet heaven.

... To me, the book is one of life's most sacred objects, a torah, a testament, something not only worth living for but as shown in Ray Bradbury's ‘Fahrenheit 451’, something that is even worth dying for.

... Not since the advent of Christianity has the world witnessed so sweeping a change in the very fabric of human existence. Behind the hi-tech revolution is an idea of Progress that in many regards resembles the premises of Christianity itself. The superseding of the new way over the old, of the New Testament over the Old Testament, the discrediting of the traditional as inferior or even evil, a sense of powerful excitement about the revolutionary, and of course, most importantly, the promise of heavenly immortality over the temporal limitations of the wasting physical body—the accursed haptic book versus the blessed Holy Ghostly Internet—all these earmark the hi-tech pogrom against the book.

Heinrich Heine, the early 19th century German Jewish poet, wrote: “"Where they burn books, they will ultimately also burn people." The advent of electronic media to first position in the modern chain of Being—a place once occupied by God—and later, after the Enlightenment, by humans—is no mere 9/11 upon our cultural assumptions. It is a catastrophe of holocaustal proportions. And its endgame is the disappearance of not just books but of all things human

The benefit of Kaufman's over-heated rhetoric is that it make very clear that books are about values. We pursue the study of iconic books in order to explain why books carry such values. Commenting on Kaufman's article on the SHARP list, Bill Bell notes that "it has for generations been conventional to invest books with human characteristics." He provides three examples:

Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers. - Charles W. Eliot

The scholar only knows how dear these silent, yet eloquent, companions of pure thoughts and innocent hours become in the season of adversity. When all that is worldly turns to dross around us, these only retain their steady value. - Washington Irving

For friends... do but look upon good Books: they are true friends, that will neither flatter nor dissemble. - Francis Bacon

I think Kaufman is right that e-texts do not carry values the same way. Why that is the case must have to do with our own embodied natures. The realms of values--religion, ethics, literature, aesthetics--require physical artifacts with which our bodies can interact. The ephemeral texts cascading down my computer screen do not fill that bill very well.

Ark of the Covenant in Zimbabwe

The Ark of the Covenant--that fabled container of the most iconic of texts, the Ten Commandments--has had considerable impact on the folklore and practices of several African peoples. Now the BBC reports that a replica of the ark that is possibly 700 years old has been placed on display in Harare, Zimbabwe.

The "ngoma lungundu" belongs to the Lemba people - black Africans who claim Jewish ancestry. They say the vessel was built almost 700 years ago from the remains of the original Ark ...

Tudor Parfitt, who rediscovered the artefact three years ago, told the BBC he believed it was the oldest wooden object ever found in sub-Saharan Africa.

"On each corner there is the remnants of a wooden ring, and obviously at one point, it was carried by inserting poles through these two rings on either side," he said.

"Of course in the biblical account, that's precisely how the Ark of the Covenant was carried across the wilderness."

The BBC's Steve Vickers in Harare says the vessel was unveiled to great fanfare at the city's Museum of Human Science.

Lemba leaders from across Zimbabwe attended the ceremony, along with government ministers

This ceremony demonstrates once again the political as well as ethnic legitimacy that can be at stake in the preservation and display of iconic texts, or their reliquaries.

Scroll, Codex, E-Book

Lev Grossman, in "From Scroll to Screen" in the New York Times today, makes a very important contribution to the comparisons between paper books and e-books. He rightly points out that the most important precedenct for this technological change in book production is not the invention of printing by Guttenberg and others, as much tech PR maintains. It is rather the invention of the codex and its adoption by Christians in place of the scroll that dominated ancient literature. Now as then, the material form of the book makes a big difference to how readers use it:
But so far the great e-book debate has barely touched on the most important feature that the codex introduced: the nonlinear reading that so impressed St. Augustine. If the fable of the scroll and codex has a moral, this is it. We usually associate digital technology with nonlinearity, the forking paths that Web surfers beat through the Internet’s underbrush as they click from link to link. But e-books and nonlinearity don’t turn out to be very compatible. Trying to jump from place to place in a long document like a novel is painfully awkward on an e-reader, like trying to play the piano with numb fingers. You either creep through the book incrementally, page by page, or leap wildly from point to point and search term to search term. It’s no wonder that the rise of e-reading has revived two words for classical-era reading technologies: scroll and tablet. That’s the kind of reading you do in an e-book.
... Indeed, the codex isn’t just another format, it’s the one for which the novel is optimized. ... But if we stop reading on paper, we should keep in mind what we’re sacrificing: that nonlinear experience, which is unique to the codex. You don’t get it from any other medium — not movies, or TV, or music or video games. The codex won out over the scroll because it did what good technologies are supposed to do: It gave readers a power they never had before, power over the flow of their own reading experience.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A/V Texts: E-Reading with Music

Betsy Morais on The Atlantic's blog, offers some fascinating thoughts on the future of e-reading: add a soundtrack to your e-book.

For those of us interested in sacred texts, what would you pair with, say, the Rg Veda's opening chapters, Kojiki on the Sun Goddess, or the book of Revelation? (Of course, we know the Revelation one: "Ride of the Valkyries"!)

The final paragraph goes some way toward delineating the power of the medium on the message:

What plays on inside a reader's head might be the ultimate value of reading. In silence, the mind can parse through a phrase without distraction, and attention can be paid to meaning more than pace. As Blaise Pascal wrote in 1670, "The sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room." Then again, a soundtrack that performs the words on the page might shut out the incessant whirring of the world to provide, for those who want it, a way of plugging yourself into a book.

Of course, it all reminds me too of Friedrich Kittler's Heidegger-inspired fear of everything being reduced to The Code...