Sunday, June 17, 2012

Stephen Prothero on America's Iconic Books

[Note: Cross-published on the Iconic Books blog]

A few weeks back Boston University's Stephen Prothero wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal, "Memorial Day and the American Bible." For Prothero, the notion of the "American Bible" has less to do, ultimately, with the texts of Scripture, and much more to do with the texts of our identity.  The "American Bible" is comprised of those texts that help to answer the question, "What is (and is not) American?":
Americans [share] a collection of core texts that "we the people" regard as authoritative and a long-standing tradition of debating what these texts have to tell us about the meaning of "America"... This unofficial canon includes founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as well as songs such as "God Bless America" and speeches by Washington, Lincoln, FDR and Reagan. It also includes novels from "Uncle Tom's Cabin" to "Atlas Shrugged."
 For Prothero, it is the constant state of debate over this canon, and what it means, that is the most constant marker of what it means to be "American."  Not the adherence to a certain political position, so much as the commitment to the struggle of pluralism among political positions.  "Look Lincoln in the eye and tell him that liberty, not equality, is America's founding proposition. Tell King you have a different dream. But as you criticize these men, know what you are doing. You are not opting out of America; you are opting in," writes Prothero.

Prothero's hypothesis about the "American Bible" is much akin to what Jim Watts and Dori Parmenter have been saying for the past several years about the status of "Iconic Books" in national (not just American) consciousness.  Indeed, Prothero's observation that "What makes these texts American scripture is not so much that Americans call them sacred or treat them like sacred objects (though in many cases we do both). What makes them scripture is the fact that Americans use these texts like Christians use the Bible," resonates strongly with Parmenter's work and Watt's "The Three Dimensions of Scriptures."  

I find it especially interesting that this article appeared in the Wall Street Journal.  I think it is a wonderful forum in which to raise the questions Prothero is pursuing.  Unfortunately, from my glance at the comments section, the readers seem unwilling or ill-equipped to engage the issues Prothero has presented.  Instead, there seems to be a preoccupation with the "atheism" of Obama and the "socialism" of our current policies, with little in the way of evidence or grammar in support.

But, at the end of the day, I suppose this only strengthens Prothero's main point.  In abundant amounts, disagreement seems to be the quality we, as Americans, most universally share.

Typographic Book Covers

Last week the Chronicle of Higher Education had a short article about the uses and history of typographic book covers.  In the post, the author, Carol Saller, polls several designers regarding their reactions and thoughts about the practice.

You can read the full text of the article here.

The tone of the article is overwhelmingly positive.  While it is admitted that an unimaginative design is a detriment whether the cover is imagistic or typographic, Saller also asserts that "Even when the title lacks pizazz, typography can deliver it."

"Smoke Screen" by Maciunas
While reading the article, I kept thinking about the work of George Maciunas, the avant-garde organizer and typographer who was the driving force in many ways behind the Fluxus art movement of the 1950s through the 1970s.  His work - both for Fluxus events and for commercial design - is deeply felt but seldom acknowledged.

All of this ties in to a small but sturdy volume I picked up at a used bookstore this weekend.  The book is called Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Editors, & Students.  I haven't had a chance to give it a thorough going-over yet, but looking at its index, Maciunas's name does not appear.  His influence, however - through the mashed-up type style and stark use of Helvetica and other sans-serif fonts - is definitely felt.

Certainly Maciunas was not the only one to use this approach.  Kurt Schwitters, Russian Constructivists, and the Bauhaus all developed versions of this type-heavy graphic style.  Using words as art, with either one or no graphic elements besides, is a long-standing mode of expression.

And this finally makes me think of Islamic art, where very often no graphic expression besides the words of the Qur'an themselves is allowed. 

The West, in many respects, is an image-dense culture.  It is interesting to see the way in which these text-dense approaches can catch us by surprise or strike us as a novelty.  We seem to naturalize the image as the norm, and imagine text as the substrate of our visual lives.  As these several examples show, this is hardly the actual case.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

More resources from the 2012 SCRIPT Meeting - Paper by James Watts

Jim Watts has posted the text of the paper he delivered at the 2012 EIR-AAR/Society for Comparative Research in Iconic and Performative Texts meeting over at the Iconic Books blog.

You can read the full text of his talk here.

SBL funds new Society for Koranic Studies

An announcement appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this week about the formation of a new scholarly society to "support scholarship and teaching about the Koran in its historical, religious, and cultural contexts."

This undertaking, headed by the Society for Biblical Literature, is supported by a $140,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

John Kutsko,  executive director of the SBL, is reported in the Chronicle as saying the intention for this new Koranic Studies society is that it be "independent," and he says he and his fellow organizers are eager to avoid being seen as presumptuous or as exhibiting a colonialist attitude. "We have no preconceived and presumed ways of reading," he reiterates.

You can read the full text of the Chronicle article here.

[The above was paraphrased from the Chronicle article, and should not be understood to represent original reportage.  Thank you to Professor Scott Newstock of Rhodes College for bringing the article to my attention.]

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Report from Eastern International Region SCRIPT Conference

This is the second year that SCRIPT has held a meeting concurrently with the Eastern International Regional meeting of the AAR. Last year we met at Syracuse University.  This year's meeting was held at Waterloo University, outside Toronto.

We had a slightly smaller footprint at this year's conference.  Instead of several sessions, we had one.  Despite the small size, however, it was well-attended, and the conversation was quite lively.

The following presentations were part of the session:
  • David Dault, Christian Brothers University: "On a Controlled Bibliographic Vocabulary for SCRIPT and its Related Organizations: A Response to Deirdre Stam"
  • James W. Watts, Syracuse University: "Relic Books"
  • Karl Ivan Solibakke, Syracuse University: "Identity, Mimesis and Script: Walter Benjamin's Mimetic Function Revisited"
I will reproduce my paper in a separate post.

Jim Watts's paper builds on the thesis he first put forth in his earlier paper, “The Three Dimensions of Scriptures.”  In his discussion, Watts argues that a "Relic" text can be understood as a text where the iconic dimension has been hyper-emphasized, and the other two dimensions (the semantic and performative dimensions) have been largely or wholly eclipsed.  He had a good supply of examples, from the Declaration of Independence on display in Washington, D.C. to several kinds of Bibles that are designed to be seen, but not read.

Karl Solibakke's paper attempted to bring the questions of Iconic Books into conversation with Walter Benjamin's corpus, particularly around the Benjaminian concept of the "script."  According the the website of the International Walter Benjamin Society, "The term 'Script' (Schrift) emerges in the 1920’s as the center around which Benjamin’s meditations on the relationship between writing and image crystallize," and refers specifically to the act of writing as a graphic event, and not merely a textual one.  Solibakke's paper added a rich dimension to the discussion that followed the three papers.

Despite our only having one session this year, we managed to attract a number of interested persons to the session, with some even pledging to join SCRIPT as a result.  After the session, the participants and many of the attendees departed to the evening reception where, despite a loud jazz band, good conversation and conviviality lasted well into the night. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Conversation about Erasmus on BBC 4

How much do I love the BBC? Quite a lot, actually. Where else would you find a radio program taking three-quarters of an hour to devote to a discussion of Erasmus of Rotterdam? On NPR, maybe, but even there you would have lots of interruptions and station breaks and such.

Not so, here. In the past couple weeks, BBC 4 has been re-broadcasting a wonderful conversation about Erasmus conducted by Melvyn Bragg on his show, In Our Time. The show, which can be heard in its entirely here, features the following esteemed scholars:

Diarmaid MacCulloch
Professor of the History of the Church at the University of Oxford

Eamon Duffy
Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Cambridge

Jill Kraye
Professor of the History of Renaissance Philosophy and Librarian at the Warburg Institute, University of London.

In the course of the program, they discuss the history of Catholic-Protestant relations, the influence of Erasmus on Luther (and vice versa), and the role of Erasmus in the development of the 1611 King James Bible.

From the show's website:

In his lifetime Erasmus was almost universally recognised as the greatest classical scholar of his age, the translator and editor of numerous Latin and Greek texts. But above all he was a religious scholar who published important editions of the Bible which expunged many corruptions to the texts of the Scriptures.

Take a few minutes and give a listen. Well worth your time.

(My thanks to Professor Michael Leslie, of Rhodes College, for the link)

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Pennsylvania declares 2012 "Year of the Bible"

Pittsburgh's public radio station reports that state lawmakers in Pennsylvania have recently passed a resolution declaring 2012 to be the "Year of the Bible":
Sponsoring Representative Rick Saccone (R-Jeffrson Hills) said he’s been getting a bit of critical feedback on the measure.One person put on the comments, ‘Why don’t you have a resolution honoring the Quran?’ Well, we could, but the Quran didn’t have an influence on the founding of our country,” said Saccone. “I’m honoring a document and reflecting on a document that had a significant impact on the foundation and throughout the history of our country.”
You can read the whole article about it here.
(Thanks to Harold Hartger for the link)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A short note about a typeface (Caslon, specifically)

I just received my copy of the Commonweal Associates Newsletter, an occasional publication for supporters of Commonweal magazine. In amongst the other news items was the following:
After redesigning the magazine in 2005, we fielded a good deal of compliments--and complaints. Reader response was mostly positive, but even fans of the revised look wondered whether the new typeface wasn't a touch too light. Well, as Jesus taught, ask and you shall receive, within at least six years. Our new new typeface, which debuted in the fall, is Caslon. It replaces the thinner-cut Goudy in headlines and body copy. You may recognize it from a little-known periodical called the New Yorker. If you haven't noticed, don't panic--the change is subtle. But important. A magazine as weighty as Commonweal ought not be printed in too light a typeface.

This assertion--that a "weighty" magazine demands a "weighty" typeface--is likely one we don't often think too much about. It brought to my mind a wonderful little book by E.R. Wendland and J.P. Louw, Graphic Design and Bible Reading,wherein they remind us that, "in the end, format does have meaning and people will assign a certain sense to the lay-out of a text according to how they happen to perceive it and interpret it" [37].

A typeface communicates more than just the words for which it is employed. It communicates a character, added-to those words. Erik Spiekermann, in his foundational Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works,makes clear that this type-character is expected to be a good match for the genre and purpose of the printed text. "Just as business people are expected to wear a suit (plus, naturally, a shirt and tie), text set for business has to look fairly serious and go about its purpose in an inconspicuous, well-organized way" [65]. Following this logic, it is only natural that "weighty" magazines are expected to sport "weighty" fonts. Serious is as serious does, after all.

Needless to say, I found it quite delightful that a magazine staff would actually come out and admit the rationale for choosing one typeface over another. While these decisions are invariably made with deliberation and care, it is not so often we get a glimpse behind the scenes into the machinations.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

NPR Reports on "How the King James Bible 'Begat' English Idioms"

A few weeks back NPR's Talk of the Nation featured a conversation with David Crystal regarding his recent book Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language. In the book, Crystal set out to answer the question, "How many English language idioms come from the King James Bible?" The answer? Not as many as most people think.

"I found 257," says Crystal.

Of particular interest to me is Crystal's observation that many of the phrases that folks attribute to the KJV actually come from other English Bible versions of the period, such as the Great Bible and the Bishops' Bible. The KJV did not originate them; it merely kept them and passed them on:
So, truly, the King James Bible popularized the expressions that were already in biblical use. The King James version was appointed to be read in all churches, so "people started not just to quote these expressions, but to play with them — 'What hath Google wrought,' indeed."
This matter of the "perception" versus the "reality" of the cultural influence of the KJV is worth pondering, especially given the rampant mis-perception that the KJV was the first English translation of the Bible, or the first translation at all (or the first Bible, period).

I haven't had a chance to read Crystal's book yet, but I'll post a report up here when I do.

You can listen to the whole conversation here.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Article in Christianity Today about the physical forms of Bibles

David Neff, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, has penned a brief article about the effects the physical forms of Bibles have on readers:
The physical form of the Bible matters because it influences the way Christians use their sacred book. In the countercultural 1960s, for example, publishers shucked the black leather uniform in favor of more contemporary dress. The aim was to reach those who might not otherwise pick up the Scriptures. The American Bible Society's Good News for Modern Man resembled a mass market paperback, and Tyndale House's Reach Out: The Living New Testament looked just plain "groovy."
While it is an informative article about some of the little-known facts of the history of Bible publishing and use -- for example, you might not have known that it was in 1791 that Isaiah Thomas published the first American Bible to contain genealogical pages -- the piece actually has very little to say about what it promises in its title: the effects of physical Bible forms on reading.

What an article like this shows is exactly the importance of work like what is going on with the Iconic Books project and here at Material Scripture. We need a language and a means of analysis that actually can track these effects of physical form when we notice them. Hopefully this article at Christianity Today is not just a flash in the pan, and Neff and others will begin to take an ongoing interest in these questions (and their answers)!

(Thanks to Allyn Harris Dault for sending me the CT article)

Adventures in Letterpress, part 1

Last December I had a chance to visit briefly with Kyle Durrie, proprietrix of Portland's Power and Light Press, who is currently on a multi-month adventure, traveling from city to city and state to state in a tricked-out delivery truck that houses two medium-weight letterpresses. Durrie was visiting Memphis, and the graphic arts professor here at CBU arranged for her to come to campus and talk and give a demonstration of the truck and the project.

The project, dubbed "Moveable Type," is the realization of a vision Durrie had while visiting her musician boyfriend on the road during a cross-country tour. "Two of my favorite things in the world are printing and road trips," Durrie says. "I wanted to figure out a way to do both things at the same time." She then set a plan in motion to get the project off the ground:
The plan was hatched last year while on a cross country band tour, studying maps and staring out car windows and exploring new towns. It was furthered along by listening to lots of songs about cowboys and truckers. In November 2010, I launched a fundraising campaign through, which was met with surprising and overwhelming support and success. I more than doubled my original financial goal, which turned out to be a good thing, because it turns out I had a very poor understanding of the costs involved in pulling something like this off.
Durrie's success with Kickstarter allowed her to buy and retrofit a 1982 Chevy step van into a fully functional letterpress print shop. "I’ve outfitted the back of the truck with built-in cabinets and workspace, a sign press from the mid 20th century, and an 1873 Golding Official No. 3 tabletop platen press," Durrie writes on her website.

The result is a compact, functional, and very beautiful work space. The trip has consisted of Durrie pulling into towns on prearranged visits, parking her van and setting up shop. She invites people into the truck to try their hand at the press, to learn what printing is and what it feels like to make something with your worn hands and effort.

I got a chance to use the sign press, and was amazed. Despite all my research into printing and the publishing of Bibles, I realized I had never thought much about the actual process of printing of physical pages. Just the little time I spent in the Type Truck was eye-opening. Printing has a feel, and a sound, and a smell to it that is unique. I never would have known this if it hadn't been for Durrie and her vision of bringing letterpress to the masses.

You can contribute to Kyle Durrie's continuing travels here, and you can make arrangements for her to visit your town here.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

New York Times features A.-J. Levine, Jewish Annotated New Testament

I just saw a New York Times article, published back in late November 2011, that features Amy-Jill Levine and focuses on the new Jewish Annotated New Testament:
This volume is thus for anybody interested in a Bible more attuned to Jewish sources. But it is of special interest to Jews who “may believe that any annotated New Testament is aimed at persuasion, if not conversion,” Drs. Levine and Brettler write in their preface. “This volume, edited and written by Jewish scholars, should not raise that suspicion.”
The article balances both commentary about Levine's lifelong interest in New Testament, as well as the current culture of Bible publication, with its preoccupation with "lifestyle" themed editions.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

"A Bible with an Appendix": Christophe Plantin's 1573 Polyglot Bible

Over the past couple of weeks my wife and I have been watching the much loved Connections series, put together by James Burke for the BBC in the 1970s and 1990s. The whole series is now available for free online, and I highly recommend it if you haven't seen it. Burke reads historical events thematically, instead of chronologically, leading to some truly fascinating leaps and threads that start one place and, by the end of the program, pull together across cultures and centuries in surprising and very satisfying ways.

The episode we watched last night had this little section about the Belgian printer Christophe Plantin, who is famous for his ambitious work producing a "Polyglot Bible" - eight volumes that incorporated five languages (Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Aramaic, and Syriac), with the last two volumes comprised entirely of grammars, lexicographic aids, charts, lists, and maps. It is an absolutely amazing piece of work, and garnered Plantin much praise (and a little bit of trouble) for his efforts.

Here is the video. Enjoy!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Manifold Disappointments

I just now got around to reading the June 2011 issue of Harper's Magazine, whose cover promised "King James, Revised: History's Best Seller Turns 400." This had been sitting in my pile of things for a while now, and I was glad to have some time over the Christmas break to give it a look.

I should have just left well enough alone. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I think it involved some form of actual historical/literary discussion of, you know, the King James Bible. Whatever I expected, this was not that.

"Harper's Magazine marked the quadricentennial of the King James Bible by inviting some of our finest poets and novelists to select a verse or short passage from the translation and respond to it, with no restrictions on the form of response," says the introductory blurb [p. 33]. The panel of seven contributors consists of Paul Guest, Benjamin Hale, Dan Chiasson, Marilynne Robinson, Charles Baxter, John Banville, and Howard Jacobson.

I tried. I really did. But "no restrictions," in this case, was a recipe for disaster and disappointment. Of the lot, only Robinson's contribution (one page of prose) comes close to a satisfactory engagement. Her piece serves both as a meditation on the peculiar language of the KJV (she reflects on the phrase, "The twinkling of an eye") and how that language is largely the inheritance of the KJV from a handful of other vernacular English versions preceding it. The piece is erudite, informed, and all too brief.

All to brief especially in light of the space taken by the other contributors. Three are poems. The other three (Jackson's "A Mirror Up to Nothing," Banville's "Absalom Dies," and Hale's "Lower than the Angels") are each a tired rendition of Hitchens-esque agnosticism. Hale reminds us that "the one English book more important than the King James Bible" is, of course, Darwin's On the Origin of the Species. Um. Okay. Yawn.

I love Harper's. Given that this was the cover story, and that I usually am so edified by what I find beneath their covers, I was left shaking my head a bit. Is this the best they could muster? To honor what is arguably (ahem) the most important book in English? (Apologies to Messrs. Darwin and Hale.) I honestly expected a lot more, and a lot better, than what they offered.