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, June 25, 2019

How and Why Books Matter

What I have learned from 18 years of the Iconic Books Project—now collected together in one place:

Religious and secular communities ritualize some books in one, two, or three dimensions. They ritualize the dimension of semantic interpretation through teaching, preaching, and scholarly commentary. This dimension receives almost all the attention of academic scholars. Communities also ritualize a text’s expressive dimension through public reading, recitation, and song, and also by reproducing its contents in art, theatre and film. This dimension is receiving increasing scholarly attention, especially in religious studies and anthropology. A third textual dimension, the iconic dimension, gets ritualized by manipulating the physical text, decorating it, and displaying it. This dimension has received almost no academic attention, yet features prominently in the most common news stories about books, whether about e-books, academic libraries, rare manuscript discoveries, or scripture desecrations. By calling attention to the iconic dimension of books, James Watts argues that we can better understand how physical books mediate social value and power within and between religious communities, nations, academic disciplines, and societies both ancient and modern.

How and Why Books Matter will appeal to a wide range of readers interested in books, reading, literacy, scriptures, e-books, publishing, and the future of the book. It also addresses scholarship in religion, cultural studies, literacy studies, biblical studies, book history, anthropology, literary studies, and intellectual history.

Table of Contents: 
Introduction: The Iconic Books Project  1-5
Chapter 1 How Books Matter: The Three Dimensions of Scriptures  7-29
Chapter 2 Iconic Books and Texts  31-54
Chapter 3 Relic Texts  55-69
Chapter 4 Iconic Digital Texts: How Rituals Materialize Virtual Texts  71-81
Chapter 5 Desecrated Scriptures and the News Media  83-98
Chapter 6 Ancient Iconic Texts  99-115
Chapter 7 Rival Iconic Texts: Ten Commandments Monuments and the U.S. Constitution  117-134
Chapter 8 Book Aniconism: The Codex, Translation and Beliefs about Immaterial Texts  135-159
Chapter 9 Mass Literacy and Scholarly Expertise  161-166
Chapter 10 Why Books Matter: Preservation and Disposal  167-188

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