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, December 27, 2011

Copying the Whole KJV

The Wall Street Journal reports the story of a man who, though in poor health, is hand-copying the entire King James Bible. He has completed about three-quarters of the text and hopes to finish in 2012.
Intellectual curiosity, rather than religious fervor, led Patterson to the project. The idea came out of a conversation with his partner of 20 years, who died of a liver disorder in February 2010. A Muslim who owned a collection of handwritten Korans, he suggested that Patterson transcribe the Bible. The concept instantly appealed.
But he plans to donate the finished set of volumes to his church in Spencertown, New York. And a local artist has created a photographic journal and blog about his work.

The article cites an expert in Christian history on the rarity of such practices, citing the lack of a devotional manuscript tradition in modern Christianity. But I suspect that the practice is more common than we suspect, but poorly documented. Aside from well-publicized efforts like the calligraphed and illuminated St. Johns Bible using the NRSV text, the Missouri Springfield Journal reported in 2007 about a man who spent 40 years copying the KJV.

(One benefit of a blog like this is the ability to document such phenomena to get a better idea of how rare or common they are. If anyone has heard of other examples of modern Christians hand copying the BIble, please let us know!)

Heritage Librarians as "Ambassadors of the Book"

The University of Antwerp will host an international library conference on February 1-2, 2012, on the theme "Ambassadors of the book: Competences for heritage librarians." The conference website explains the goal:
It seems trivial, these days, to state that libraries have been challenged by recent technological, social and economic developments. On the other hand, these developments have not minimized the library’s mission as a memory institution, quite the contrary. Among the many roles that libraries will continue to play in the 21st century and beyond, their responsibility for the preservation of the written heritage is perhaps the one that is questioned least.
I am less optimistic that preservation remains widely acknowledged as a core service of libraries. Rhetoric about accessibility and digitization dominates discussions I've heard and read much more than memory preservation does. I think the organizers are right, though, that preservation remains the chief cultural role of libraries, especially research libraries. It is the one that corporate interests are least likely to replace.

Relic Armenian Manuscript Pages

The Los Angeles Times reported last month on the Getty Museum's legal battle to retain ownership of eight illuminated pieces of parchment from the 13th-century Zeyt'um Gospels. The Armenian Church claims the pages were stolen during the genocide of 1916 and the Getty does not hold legal title to them.

An interesting feature of this controversy is the debate over the moral issues involved not just in ownership of the pages but also over the ethics of separating a manuscript into multiple parts. On the one hand, the Getty cites common practice:
Elizabeth Morrison, the Getty's acting senior curator of manuscripts, said that "well-regarded … collections around the world" contain individual manuscript sheets. "The Getty in no way condones the practice of taking apart manuscripts, but we continue to collect individual leaves after careful examination proves that they have not recently been removed … with motives of financial gain."
Her argument, then, is that there are legitimate motives for taking books apart. Though not mentioned here, libraries and museums have often disassembled valuable codices in order to display more than two pages at one time. Once disassembled, though, they are more easily sold in pieces, and perhaps more valuable that way. Both for display and for profit, then, codices frequently get treated like bodily relics by socalled "secular" institutions.

On the other side of the argument is the claim that the pages "belong" with the rest of the manuscript.

Father Columba Stewart, a Benedictine monk and executive director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., said that a whole work of art is better than a divided one, and that when a museum has the power to turn a fragmented manuscript into a complete one, it should do so. "It's better from an artistic perspective … it can [then] be studied by scholars as a whole object," said Stewart. . . . Acquiring individual sheets of a manuscript is improper, he said, unless the original work already is so fragmented or scattered that there's little chance it can be made whole. Museums must avoid "contributing to an improper fragmentation of a work. In this instance, it would not be a terribly complex matter to restore the whole."
Stewart invokes the needs of scholars to view a work entire, but also an aesthetic value of the integrity of the work of art. Only then does the article mention specifically religious considerations:
Beyond that, Stewart said, the Getty, which in recent years repatriated more than 40 artifacts to Greece and Italy after evidence showed they had been looted from archaeological sites, should consider that these works are still venerated: "Here's a living, breathing religious community, as opposed to classical antiquities."

This case illustrates clearly the contested values that can swirl around relic texts, especially those that have been partitioned and parceled out, as people are prone to do with relics. We have had the opportunity to observe these processes at work with various kinds of relic texts on this blog (click the label relic at left for more examples).

Saturday, December 24, 2011

All I want for Christmas is a Controlled Vocabulary...

...or, at least, to start a conversation about one.

A "controlled vocabulary" is a standard used in taxonomies to help control ambiguity about objects and resources. It cuts down on syntactic clutter.

What sort of clutter? Consider the word "football." The term means one thing in America, sure. As soon as we are out of the US, however, it could easily refer to what we yanks call "soccer," or even (in other parts of the world) rugby. As a descriptor, "football" is a poor one.

In the worlds of Iconic Books and Material Scripture, we have a similar problem. Our terms, especially terms like "book" and "text," are imprecise and (at worst) utterly confusing. Since these are the core objects of our discussions, it makes sense to take up discussions to adopt a standard of terms, a "controlled vocabulary," that will allow us to reduce ambiguities as we move forward in our research.

I am by no means the first person to call for such a move. Those who attended the third Iconic Books symposium in 2010 will remember Deirdre Stam's "Talking About 'Iconic Books' in the Terminology of Book History." I feel now - as I said then, as we were commenting on her paper - that this is the single most important matter facing our research. Hands down.

Now that SCRIPT is viable and attracting new members, we are at a perfect point to undertake a serious conversation about finding a scholarly standard for our bibliographic terms - a shared, controlled vocabulary that we can endorse and encourage the use of in all SCRIPT-related endeavors and publications. (Think of this is terms of the SBL Style Guide, for example - in principle if not in execution - offering a standard reference to writers in the field.) Now, precisely when things are still small and manageable, is the ideal time to put such standards in place.

I speak from bitter experience. In the process of writing my dissertation, I concocted an 80-page chapter where - in my utter ignorance - I attempted to develop a vocabulary out of whole cloth for theologians to talk about physical books. It was terrible; a Frankenstein's monster sort of affair. Moreover, it was executed in complete ignorance of the excellent groundwork in bibliographic studies that already exists.

It is my fear, if we don't establish such a standard, that my experience will be shared by many SCRIPT scholars to follow. Each will take their turn at the attempt to define their subject from the ground up, wasting time and effort that could be spent advancing the conversation in new directions.

For those who have never thought about these issues before, let me suggest two starting points for discussion. The first (shorter) is G. Thomas Tanselle's "The Arrangement of Descriptive Bibliographies," from Studies in Bibliography, Volume 37 (1984) and available online here. In the article, Tanselle suggests the second (longer) starting point, which I'd like to also include here, Principles of Bibliographic Description, by Fredson Bowers.

What is needed, ultimately, is a set of terms upon which we agree, that we will use moving forward to reduce ambiguity in our scholarly conversations. Tanselle and Bowers are two sources I have come across in my own research, but I have no doubt many readers of this blog have encountered others that they might suggest. Please do.

My hope (my Christmas wish!) is that this discussion will be taken up across all quarters of the SCRIPT universe in the next couple of years. I encourage my colleagues to follow Deirdre Stam's lead, and to present papers and perhaps whole conference panels where options for standards can be presented and debated. I also encourage robust discussion on these blogs about the question.

There are well-established, robust standards of bibliographic description out there. Let's share them, search out new ones, and eventually decide on the one that will best serve our scholarship. Then let's agree on it, use it, and move forward to the frontiers.

I'm very interested in suggestions and responses. Please share them in the comments below! Thank you, and happy holidays,

David Dault, Washington, PA

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Thousands of rare books go up in flames in Cairo

Huffington Post has reported today that the "Institute d'Egypte, a research center set up by Napoleon Bonaparte during France's invasion in the late 18th century, caught fire during clashes between protesters and Egypt's military over the weekend. It was home to a treasure trove of writings, most notably the handwritten 24-volume Description de l'Egypte, which began during the 1798-1801 French occupation."

Thousands of volumes have been damaged, and many are burned beyond recovery. "This is equal to the burning of Galileo's books," Zein Abdel-Hady, who runs the country's main library, said.

The full Huffington Post article can be accessed here.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Norms for reading postures

I recently responded to a query on the SHARP discussion list that may be of interest:
My SHARP query: in conjunction with my research on graphic novels, I'm looking at the normative act of reading--how readers are supposed to use their hands, not move their heads, NOT move their lips, not move their fingers over the words, not underline passages, not write in the margins, etc., and how they are supposed to sit rather than stand or lie down or kneel, etc. (except with regard to public readings of liturgical texts, obviously). I'd be interested to know if anyone has done work or is presently working on the relationship of hierarchical codes inscribed in the book object to the physical acts involved in reading. My sense is that reading was physically engrossing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and progressively less so in the 19th and 20th. Morris, Gill, Morison, Warde all have notes that point to the disembodiment of reading, and I assume that somewhere there must be a mid-20th century book or film or filmstrip that actually depicts for children how they are supposed to comport themselves nicely as they read, but I haven't located one, and if anyone has, I'd be grateful for a citation.

Michael Joseph
Rutgers University Libraries
My response:

In compiling and analyzing a pictorial database for the Iconic Books Project, we noticed the significant role of art in promulgating norms of reading behavior, especially posture. This appears as early as ancient Egyptian portraiture and ritual texts, shows up famously (though not uniquely either in time or culture) in late medieval and renaissance depictions of Mary's Annunciation, and remains a prominent feature of contemporary illustrative photography and art.

Posture varies, of course, depending on the material form of the text and also the situation of its use. In many religious communities from antiquity to the present, for example, liturgical reading takes place standing while devotional reading is usually depicted in a seated posture--often simultaneously in congregations where the liturgist reads the scripture from the pulpit while congregants follow along in their own Bibles. Maybe the increasing publication of genres for private use has led to emphasizing sitting modes of reading to the point of disembodiment (an idea that echoes devotional, even mystical reading practices), but I should point out that standing to read publicly remains the norm, even (especially?) in academic conference presentations.

Beyond these general observations, though, I can't point out much specific bibliography. Study of the embodied and material uses of texts is in its infancy, especially comparative study that begins to generalize about norms of reading and their social significance. That makes it, for me at least, a very exciting subject to work on!

Jim Watts
Syracuse University

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Publishers embellishing physical books

The Herald-Tribune reports a publishing trend of embellishing book covers and adding pictures to sell physical books:
Many new releases have design elements usually reserved for special occasions — deckle edges, colored endpapers, high-quality paper and exquisite jackets that push the creative boundaries of bookmaking. If e-books are about ease and expedience, the publishers reason, then print books need to be about physical beauty and the pleasures of owning, not just reading.
It seems to be working:
There are indications that an exquisitely designed hardcover book can keep print sales high and cut into e-book sales. For instance, “1Q84” has sold 95,000 copies in hardcover and 28,000 in e-book — an inversion of the typical sales pattern of new fiction at Knopf.
The attempt to create books that are beautiful objects not only emphasizes beauty over against e-books, but also permanence:
... “If we believe that convenience reading is moving at light speed over to e,” Mr. Schnittman said, using the industry shorthand for e-books, “then we need to think about what the physical qualities of a book might be that makes someone stop and say, ‘well there’s convenience reading, and then there’s book owning and reading.’ We realized what we wanted to create was a value package that would last.”

... In October, the British novelist Julian Barnes underscored that point when he accepted the Man Booker Prize for “The Sense of an Ending” by urging publishers to pay attention to aesthetics. “Those of you who have seen my book, whatever you think of its contents, will probably agree that it is a beautiful object,” Mr. Barnes told the black-tie crowd in London. “And if the physical book, as we’ve come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the e-book, it has to look like something worth buying and worth keeping.”

Exhibiting iconic books

Nate Pederson on Fine Books & Collections points out:
A tip to any public libraries struggling with declining patronage: go digging around in your vault!  The public library in Windsor, Ontario discovered a Bible from 1585 languishing away in its vault earlier this year.  Librarians promptly put the book on display and saw a 40 percent increase in visitors last month. 
In my paper on "Iconic Electronic Texts" for the Religion & Media Workshop in San Francisco last month, I argued that the same motive drives many digitization projects. Libraries and museums put there most iconic books online in hopes of bringing more people through their doors to see the real thing. Once there, they may buy physical momentos of the relic text, ranging from cheap postcards to expensive facsimile reproductions of the entire book. So, far from detracting from the appeal of physical books, digitization provides new means for marketing their display as relics.

Libraries symbolizing hope and ideals

This fall brought several news storis showing that libraries--respositories of material books--continue to function as powerful symbols of the ideals of free thought, empowerment and counter-culture. The most obvious example was the "People's Library" that sprang up at the Occupy Wall Street protest in New York and was frequently highlighted in news coverage of the event.

This picture (from The People's Library, scroll down to October 11) captures much of the library's symbolic interest. "Literacy, Legitimacy and Moral Authority" reads the sign above the donations box. The media interest reflected the sentiment that the library was somehow representative of the movement. After police evicted the protestors, ruined books were displayed in front of the New York Public Library to portray repression of the movement (from The People's Library, scroll down to November 20).

Michael Lieberman posted pictures on Book Patrol showing the book theme in the protestors' signs, too.

The theme of libraries as tools of empowerment and liberation also appeared in the New York Times' story about the Read/Write Library's new location in Chicago:
Formerly known as the Chicago Underground Library, Read/Write rejects the selectivity of traditional libraries and collects “anything from university press to handmade artists’ books to zines made by 13-year-olds,” Ms. Taylor said. “We want to give people a much broader sense of who’s out there.”
That is rhetoric more frequently associated with the internet, but here motivating an all-volunteer effort to preserve and present a material collection.

The Nicholas Kristof in the NYTimes also highlighted work to extend literacy by founding libraries around the world:
John Wood handed out his 10 millionth book at a library that his team founded in this village in the Mekong Delta — as hundreds of local children cheered and embraced the books he brought as if they were the rarest of treasures. Wood’s charity, Room to Read, has opened 12,000 of these libraries around the world, along with 1,500 schools.

Kristof makes the virtues of literacy very clear: "Schooling is cheap and revolutionary. The more money we spend on schools today, the less we’ll have to spend on missiles tomorrow."

These stories illustrate the fact that books and libraries continue to function as powerful material symbols of people's hopes for a more equitable, enlightened and peaceful world.

Burying Outdated Missals

On November 27th, use of the new translation of the Roman Catholic Mass became mandatory for English-speaking congregations. The Washington Post's coverage of the change emphasizes the more conservative tendencies of the new version, which replaces on produced in the 1960s after the Second Vatican Council. But what drew my attention was this parenthetical comment:
Millions of books are being replaced; each parish must buy its own. (What becomes of the old books? The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recommends burying them on church grounds or in a parish cemetary.)
The statement of the U.S. Bishops' Conference also suggests ritualizing the disposal process by saying a blessing when retiring the outdated books. It notes that because books used in the liturgy are blessed, they should be treated "with respect."

The collection of essays edited by Kristina Myrvold, "Death of Sacred Texts," surveys how various religious traditions handle this problem. Dorina Miller Parmenter's essay in that collection points out that Christian traditions tend to have fewer mandates regarding the disposal of sacred books than some other religions, but that lay Christians often voice discomfort at simply trashing or recycling Bibles or other sacred texts. The bishops were responding to queries motivated by such concerns when they issued these instructions.

This is not, however, just a religious concern. Unease over book destruction or disposal is widespread Sacred texts only provide more focused examples of a broader concern, as several previous posts (here, here, and here, as well as the entries under the label "disposal" at left) have observed.