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, November 19, 2013

A Book and the Founding of the United States and Its Religion

UPDATE: The book sold for $14million

A little old Psalm book has stirred some small controversy in Boston. According to the New York Times, a Bay Psalm Book from 1640 will be auctioned off at Sotheby's, and may fetch tens of millions of dollars on the 26th of November. A hefty sum for a church, like Boston's Old South Church, in need some building repairs. But the book is part of the church (and has more history than the well-known image of the Italian Gothic steeple from the nineteenth century), and the majority vote by the congregation to sell off the book caused the church historian, Jeff Makholm, to resign.

Michael Inman, curator of rare books at the New York Public Library, said this book is one of eleven existent of the early American Psalms. Since it was one of the first books ever printed in the colonies, the workmanship was not great, with some sloppy layout and misspellings. Hebrew characters were inserted with wood block cuts, while the rest of it was done with metal type. Nonetheless, Inman says,

“These 11 copies symbolize the introduction of printing into the British colonies, which was reflective of the importance placed on reading and education by the Puritans and the concept of freely available information, freedom of expression, freedom of the press. All that fed into the revolutionary impulse that gave rise to the United States."
Religious history also suggests how this "freely available information" and the book's small, hand held size, helped lead to the great mythology of the single individual, both as a citizen and a believer.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Old believer's iconic books

In recent months, two bloggers have drawn attention to the role of Iconic Books in different religious communities.
Vlad Naumescu, on the SSRC forum Reverberations, profiled the importance of iconic prayer books to Russian Old Believers. He includes a short video of the book in use in prayer.
MormonDeadHead, on the Faith Promoting Rumor blog, built on Tim Beal's exposure of the multiplicity of Bibles to find the same results from examining the manuscripts of the Book of Mormon.  

Baby's Hug-A-Bible

Collecting iconic Bibles can start early in life ...

Thursday, September 26, 2013

SHARP theme, "Religions of the Book," Antwerp, September, 2014

The Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP) has announced the theme for its September 17-21, 2014, annual conference in Antwerp, Belgium, as "Religions of the Book." The Call for Papers casts a broad net, inviting submissions that explore
the relationship between any religion(s) and the production, distribution and consumption of books and texts, in whatever form (manuscript, printed or digital), in any region or any period of time.  Religious and anti-religious censorship, iconography, spiritual literature, preaching practices are only a few of the many possible approaches. Moreover, participants to SHARP’s 22nd annual conference are invited to explore the more metaphorical dimensions of its central topic. We warmly invite proposals relating the theme to bibliophilia (a religion devoted to the book?), cult books, the role of authors as high priests, reading as a trance-provoking practice, the sacral status of the printed book in Enlightenment ideology, the strong belief in the freedom of the press… One may even consider the cultural apocalypse some pessimists see ensue the on-going process of digitization, or, inversely, the imminent salvation promised by internet and tablet gurus. 
The conference planners have even produced a U-Tube video about it.

Paper and panel proposals are due November 30, 2013.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Print and Personal Religious Identity

It is exciting to see the many new studies of the impact of book technologies on histories of religions. In some cases, history is recast in new ways and what we thought happened ends up looking a little different in retrospect. In other cases, attention to the materiality of books bolsters already argued histories, but shows the origins of an event to be not so much intellectual as physical: ideas are constrained and disseminated in printed and bound forms, just as the ideas would have been impossible without the resources of writing and print.

Kathleen Lynch has recently published an essay at the Martin Marty Center's Religion & Culture Web Forum with the provocative title, "How does the fixity of print become a problem for religious identity?" Lynch is Executive Director of the Folger Institute at the Folger Shakespeare Library and knows a few things about the power of books. Her 2012 book, Protestant Autobiography in the Seventeenth-Century Anglophone World, (Oxford UP) argues that the genre of Protestant autobiography was bound up with print, and with the trans-Atlantic book trade.

Lynch's recent essay on the fixity of print supplements Protestant Autobiography, and focuses on Sarah Wight's 1647 publishing "sensation," The Exceeding Riches of Grace. Because of its existence as a bound book, the conversion story becomes fixed, in spite of any future doubts and questions Wight might have had. Even with new editions published over the following two decades, addenda were relegated outside the narrative proper, leading Lynch to suggest: "Despite the multiple opportunities and anecdotal prompts, the continuation of the story is resisted, with the material constraints of the number of sheets at least bolstering, if not precisely establishing, a conceptual boundary."

Print itself makes it seem that religious identity is secure, "the physical properties of the book helped shape the model of godly selfhood that was being advanced in this narrative." Stories of conversion are fixed in print, while the personal early-American gospel of an interior-focused religiosity is spread through thoroughly external, material means.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Georgia on My Mind: The Invisible Power of Typeface

(cross-posted with the Material Scripture blog)

My thanks to my colleagues who made sure I saw the article in The Week from a few days ago, "How Typeface Influences the Way We Read and Think."

The insight here is a helpful one for those interested in materialist questions in the study of Scriptures: namely, that the visual presentation of the words themselves create a psychological effect in the reader, leading to increased credulity (in the case, say, of Georgia) or outright derision (as in the case of Comic Sans).

The only book on the subject of which I am aware is Graphic Design and Bible Reading: Exploratory Studies in the Typographical Representation of the Text of Scripture in Translation, by E. R. Wendland and J. P. Louw. Sadly, it looks like it has gone out of print, though I do have a copy if anyone would like to do some more exploration.

Besides that one text, I have not done much formal study of typefaces in Scripture; but I am pretty sure S. Brent Rodriguez Plate has, and I would love to hear his response to this (and other responses, as well).

Monday, May 13, 2013

Iconic Books and Texts has been published!

Iconic Books and Texts has been published! This volume contains nineteen essays from the Iconic Books Symposia of 2007, 2009 and 2010, and three from my Idea of Scripture seminar in 2005. They were previously published in Postscripts 2 (2006/2008) and 6 (2010/2012) and appear here together in one volume from Equinox. Click here for the flyer with full Table of Contents and an offer of a 25% discount on orders.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Bible Portraits website

Dori Parmenter launched Bible Portraits: What Real Bibles Look Like. It invites viewers to upload pictures of themselves with their Bibles along with stories about them.

Parmenter wrote "Iconic Books from Below: The Christian Bible and the Discourse of Duct Tape" (Postscripts 6 [2010], 185-200) where she documented the iconic status of marked-up and tattered Bibles as a counter-discourse to the marketing of specially-bound Bibles and Bible covers. Her goal here is to create a collection that illustrates "the physical appearance of Bibles and people’s relationships to this book."

Monday, April 1, 2013

Religious Book Destruction in Central Asia

Bradford Anderson calls my attention to legal actions to suppress religious literature in several countries of Central Asia. Russian authorities have ordered the destruction of modern books tauting the views of Muslims, Hare Krishnas, and Seventh Day Adventist. Protestants and their libraries have been targeted in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Christianity Today interprets this news in the context of Christian revivals in Central Asia in the last several years.

Much of our attention to book desecration and destruction on this blog has focused on highly symbolic actions at attacks on religious legitimacy. But book destruction has in past ages been an effective means used by states to suppress entire religious movements and their memory (e.g. the Manicheans). Governments and courts are still trying this tactic, despite the increasing difficulties posed by two information revolutions--print and digital.

Friday, March 8, 2013


On the iconicity of the Encyclopedia Britannica 

and the deconsecration thereof

Ashes to Ashes. Arctic to Biosphere. Birds to Chess. 

There's an earlier post on this site on the digitization of the EB. Here writer Julian Baggini gives his own end to the bound bundle. His essay and the narrative accompanying the video point to the socio-economic dimensions involved in knowledge acquisition, and how books (here explicitly the EB sold by door-to-door salesman) become part of that. The way up in life is through reading and learning. Or so it was.

One of the best lines in here regards the "ossification of knowledge" in the encyclopedic medium. Knowledge is already dead in this form. He's just giving a proper burial.

What is particularly interesting are the comments at the end. So many wrote in to suggest how wrong was the action, that these books could still be used. That they should have been donated, or recycled. The irony here being most of the ones arguing that books should not be burned were the ones that clearly didn't actually read the essay to understand his finer points.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Religion and Visual Culture CFP

An international call for papers has gone up for a conference that focuses on "religious studies" and "visual culture."  It looks like the event will take place in Paris.  The CFP is open until September 1, 2013, and you can find more information here.

Monday, January 21, 2013

West vs. Obama @ MLK's Bible

Dori Parmenter pointed out Cornell West's complaint that President Barack Obama should not use Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Bible for his inaugural oath. Here's West's sermon:

Frankly, the issue of King's Bible simply provides West a launching pad in this video for reviving and translating King's issues into the politics and social reality of 2013, which he does very well. But if we pause to think about how he uses King's Bible rhetorically, it's clear that he objects to Obama claiming legitimacy from King's legacy. Ritualizing iconic books legitimizes those who own and manipulate them. By taking the presidential oath on both Lincoln's and King's Bibles today, Obama laid claim to the legacy of both with powerful imagery.

We could take time and space to interpret its significance, but the power of ritual and symbolic imagery lies in making such claims without using words. Obama identifies himself in this way with Lincoln and King. West contests the taming of King's legacy for good reason, but I doubt even his rhetoric has much chance against the legitimizing claim expressed by this photograph.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

SCRIPT calls for papers

SCRIPT has issued two calls for papers for panels at concurrent meetings in May and in November:
May 10-11, 2013: SCRIPT panels at the EIR regional meeting of the AAR in Toronto:
We invite proposals for a panel of four papers that address the iconic and performative dimensions of specific texts or a range of texts. We particularly encourage comparative studies that cross traditional scholarly boundaries of time, culture, religion, media or genre.
Each proposal should contain the following in a single e-mail attachment in MS Word format: One-page abstract (300 words maximum) describing the nature of the paper or panel Current CV(s) for the participant(s) Cover page that includes the submitter’s full name, title, institution, phone number, fax number, e-mail, and mailing address. For panel proposals, identify the primary contact person.
Send proposals to scriptsecretary@gmail.com. Deadline: February 15.
November 23-26, 2013: SCRIPT panel and annual meeting at the AAR/SBL in Baltimore:
For Baltimore, SCRIPT invites proposals for a panel of four papers that address the iconic and performative dimensions of specific texts or a range of texts. We particularly encourage comparative studies that cross traditional scholarly boundaries of time, culture, religion, media or genre.
Submit paper proposals here. Deadline: March 1.
Other Events involving SCRIPT topics and members:
March 15-17, 2013: Panel on "Publishing and Protection: The Material Reality of the Bible" in the Religion, Culture, and the Arts Section of the SECSOR in Greenville, SC:
  • Dorina Miller Parmenter, "Dangers, Toils, and Snares: The Materialization of the Saving Grace of the Bible"
  • David Dault, "’Battlezone’ Bibles and Bulletproof Covers: The Material Rhetoric of Armor Plating in Contemporary Bible Production”
June 23-25, 2013: "Sacred Texts and Human Contexts" at Nazareth College of Rochester

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Congresswoman Sinema sworn in using Constitution, not Bible

When we discuss the iconic dimensions of texts, an important point made by Jim Watts and others is that it is not simply "holy books" like the Bible that exercise iconicity.  Indeed, we can point to many secular documents that also exercise iconic effects.

Hence this recent news item, pointing out that Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema chose recently to be sworn in using a copy of the US Consitution, instead of a Bible.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Book as Object in current issue of Terrain

Elizabeth Castelli brings to my attention that the September 2012 issue of Terrain: revue d'ethnologie de l'Europe is devoted to the topic of l'objet libre (the book as object). Here's the table of contents:
  • L’objet livre (Stephen Hugh-Jones et Hildegard Diemberger)
  • Quand le livre devient relique: Les textes tibétains entre culture bouddhique et transformations technologiques (Hildegard Diemberger)
  • Les Agamas: des livres saints canoniques: Le rituel hindou entre transmission orale et textes sacrés (Chris Fuller)
  • Le livre comme trésor: Aura, prédation et secret des manuscrits savants du Sud marocain (Romain Simenel)
  • Le Coran et ses multiples formes (Casablanca, Maroc) (Anouk Cohen)
  • L’objet livre à l’aube de l’époque moderne (Warren Boutcher)
  • Quand le texte se fait matière: Une exploration des versions du manuscrit arabe (Christine Jungen)
  • Le synthétique sacré: Réflexions sur les aspects matériels des textes juifs orthodoxes (Jeremy Stolow)

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Bodleian's Crossing Borders Exhibit

I finally went to NYC to see Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries at the Jewish Museum. Like several other displays of manuscripts since 9/11, Crossing Borders aims to show the cultural interplay and continuity between Jewish, and Christian and Muslim manuscript cultures in the middle Ages. It does this most successfully by setting side by side copies of Euclid's Geometry in Latin, Hebrew and Arabic, all from the 13th and 14th centuries. The exhibit's centerpiece, the illuminated Kennicott Hebrew bible (late 15th c.), also appears next to the carpet pages of an illuminated Qur'an and a 13th-century Arabic gospel.

The exhibition is less thorough than others have been in carrying through this theme. Its underlying goal shows through of exhibiting the Bodleian's hebraica collection, which has been growing steadily for 400 years. The exhibition hall with elaborate woodworking, dark red walls, and dark interior reinforced the Oxford effect.

The exhibit shows the maturation of using electronic technology to show more  of a book than just the two pages open in the exhibit case. Many of the exhibit cases included built-in tablets that allowed visitors to browse more pages and zoom in on details. The Kennicott Bible was accompanied by five tablets that allowed browsing every single page of this illuminated Bible. Now that people are increasingly familiar with using cell phones and tablets, this is a very user-friendly interface. It is the culmination of a trend that began with the British Library's "turning the pages" displays more than a decade ago.

Most striking to me were the set of folio-sized and illuminated commentaries from the 12th to 15th centuries. They included Herbert of Bosham's glosses on Lombard's commentary on the Psalms (12th c., at left), a Hebrew Bible with Rashi's glosses (13th c.), Nicholas of Lyra's two-volume biblical commentary (14th c.), and Jacob Ben Asher's Evev ha-Ezer (15th c.). They contrasted with the more utilitarian sized and produced works of Maimonides and Richard of St. Victor. The illuminations of the folio volumes (especially Herbert's glosses) rivaled the Bibles and prayer books displayed beside them. Obviously, they must have been produced for wealthy patrons or institutions. Still, it is surprising to see so much wealth invested in scholarly products.

The exhibit remains at the Jewish Museum until February 3rd.

ADDENDUM: Zak Braiterman summarized his reaction to seeing the Kennicott Bible, both on display and online here, in this way: "So what does this Bible look like? Austere and illuminated. Black, gold, red, blue. Carefully tended. Deluxe. I think this says a lot about the Spanish Jewish milieu in which this thing was produced. Does it say anything about the Bible itself? It suggests something about the plastic character of a text, including Holy Writ, something about the shape of its appearance. We’re so used to reading the Bible, to the idea that the Bible is something to be read, that we lose sight of its objecthood and the fact that it is also something to look at. The decorative device frames the physical text and also its “sense.” ... I’m pretty sure that this is not the same Bible that “we” read today. “Our” Bible is more folksy and Ashkenazi. This one is very aristocratic and Sephardic. And private."