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.)

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."