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, October 25, 2015

The Cultural Functions of Libraries

Writing in the New York Times, Alberto Manguel concisely captures the cultural function of libraries as three-fold:
as preservers of the memory of our society, as providers of the accounts of our experience and the tools to navigate them — and as symbols of our identity.
Since the time of Alexandria, libraries have held a symbolic function. For the Ptolemaic kings, the library was an emblem of their power; eventually it became the encompassing symbol of an entire society, a numinous place where readers could learn the art of attention which, Hannah Arendt argued, is a definition of culture. But since the mid-20th century, libraries no longer seem to carry this symbolic meaning and, as mere storage rooms of a technology deemed defunct, are not considered worthy of proper preservation and funding.
Manguel lists chronicles the many ways that librarians are diversifying their services to remain relevant and fundable in the current political and cultural climate. But he argues that "If we change the role of libraries and librarians without preserving the centrality of the book, we risk losing something irretrievable."
Every economic crisis responds, first of all, by cutting funds to culture. But the dismantling of our libraries and changing their nature is not simply a matter of economics. Somewhere in our time, we began to forget what memory — personal and collective — means, and the importance of common symbols that help us understand our society.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Ten Years of Artists' Books

At the Brooklyn Public Library

I wish I could get to this new show at the Brooklyn Public Library, curated by Donna Seager of Seager Gray Gallery, Mill Valley, California. First, I love that a gallery curates a show for a library, already colliding a couple spaces that need more collision and collusion. Second, it's a fine collection of artists working with/on/against/for books in multiple ways. In a small collection of objects, some of the range of what we call "artists' books" can be seen.

Third, and bringing me to the interests of this blog, are the myriad religious references. I've known Meg Hitchcock's work for a few years and am especially fond of her abilities to find connections between the texts of the western religious traditions, while the cost of making the connections is the cutting up of the books, an act that could be seen as desecrating.

Other religious borrowings include Islam Aly who adopts a history of Quranic bookmaking and calligraphy for his political piece on Tahrir Square. Julie Chen devises an accordion book with a sort of spiritual journey invoked. Lisa Kokin self-consciously creates a "page" of Karl Marx's Das Capital in the format of a leaf of sacred text, or perhaps ritual cloth. And Elizabeth Sher's "Blog" borrows the format of torah scrolls and placing them in what looks like a coffin.

The well-photographed objects of the exhibition are available in the catalog available in non-book form at ISSUU. Well worth a leaf through.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

China nervous about the Magna Carta

Exhibition of an early copy of the Magna Carta was suddenly cancelled and moved in Beijing. The New York Times reports:
Magna Carta — the Great Charter — is on tour this year, celebrating eight centuries since it was issued in 1215 by King John of England. ... One of the few surviving 13th-century copies of the document was to go on display this week from Tuesday through Thursday at a museum at Renmin University of China in Beijing .... But then the exhibit was abruptly moved to the British ambassador’s residence, with few tickets available to the public and no explanation given. (The document is also set to go on display at the United States Consulate in Guangzhou and at a museum in Shanghai, the embassy said.)
One source indicated that Renmin, which has close ties to the government, cancelled the exhibit at the request of the Ministry of Education. A Western academic reacted with a typically dismissive scholastic attitude:
“To get kind of wound up about an old document like the Magna Carta? They’re a little bit brittle and fragile, aren’t they, Chinese leaders?” said Kerry Brown, a former British diplomat who was stationed in Beijing and now serves as director of the China Studies Center at the University of Sydney in Australia. “Poor dears.”
But the Chinese governments actions more likely reflect views voiced by Hu Jia, "a prominent Chinese dissident," who thought that Chinese leaders worried that the exibit would be popular and that "many students would flock there. ... They fear that such ideology and historical material will penetrate deep into the students’ hearts.”

How this particular exhibit fares in today's China remains to be seen. The collection of evidence on this blog over the years suggests, however, that the Chinese estimate of the cultural potency of ancient documents like the Magna Carta may well be more realistic than dismissive academics like to think.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Surprise! E-books decline, independent bookstores increase

The New York Times reported last month that e-book sales have leveled off, and may even be starting to decline:
E-book sales fell by 10 percent in the first five months of this year, according to the Association of American Publishers .... Digital books accounted last year for around 20 percent of the market, roughly the same as they did a few years ago.
Meanwhile, independent bookstores are staging a small resurgence:
The American Booksellers Association counted 1,712 member stores in 2,227 locations in 2015, up from 1,410 in 1,660 locations five years ago.
As a result, "Publishers ... are pouring money into their print infrastructures and distribution," such as huge new warehouses and fast, 2-day distribution to bookstores.

The article attributes the change to plummeting consumer interest in e-readers, like the Kindle and Nook, that have largely been replaced by tablets and large-screen cell phones. But publishers still expect digital texts to continue to be popular, on one platform or another.

Maybe. What the article does not consider is the resilience of the book as a cultural icon that represents enduring value and worth. No digital platform shows any signs of gaining that kind of status. Until it does, digital texts might better be classified as the latest form of ephemeral text.

In the forms of newspapers, blackboards, broadsheets, wax tablets, ostraca, and unbaked clay tablets, ephemeral texts are as old as writing itself. They are always highly utilitarian even in their iconic uses as receipts and currency. The mutability of digital media makes it an effective replacements for older ephemeral texts. They are well on the way to replacing both currency and newspapers.

Books occupy a different place in human symbolism. They represent the permanence of knowledge and value. They are, in many cases, a very practical as well as symbolic technology for cultural preservation. That does not describe all books, of course. But it is possible that in retrospect, the e-book revolution of the early twenty-first century will have succeeded only in skimming off the ephemeral texts that used to take book form, such as pulp paperback novels and phone books.