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M. Leary

Books As Religious Objects

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I recently resurrected something I wrote years ago on Medium. It is about the technical history of parchment and scrolls, with a bunch of photos of an actual 18th century portion of Numbers. This theme and pool of data was once the central focus of my work, and I have been toying with it again as editorial about the rise of the printed book circulates. But I offer this for comment, as I thought readers of this section may be interested:

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The binding of a book or scroll was every bit a religious act as the refining of a point of theology or practice. This can be hard to discern between the lines of reference in antiquity to parchment production and bookbinding practices. But our reading of such texts deepens considerably when one engages with the actual materials in question. The smooth hand of finished parchment, the odor of natural adhesives, the flat feel of a solid parchment joint, the tension of thread in the head of a bound codex, the quiet clap of bookboards on a finished text block. These sensory experiences are not just analogous to the clamor of bells in a sanctuary or the scent of incense in a space of worship — they belong to the same category. An era can never be comprehended solely through a survey of its technical and material practices, but it can never be understood, even in a very cursory way, apart from them.

I am finding that my library has been diverging. I buy a lot of fiction and some academic works via much cheaper ebooks. When I know something is going to be important, or potentially valuable, I splash out for the real thing. I want to feel its heft.

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When I think of books-as-religious-objects, the first thing that comes to mind is Ellery Queen's And on the Eighth Day, for reasons that only become apparent at the end of the novel.

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Just read this at your prompting. What a strange and captivating little book! It is kind of like a fever dream version of the few Queen novels I have read - but I can imagine the reveal having quite a punch in its day. I will definitely be referring to this in future publications on this subject.

 

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2 hours ago, M. Leary said:

Just read this at your prompting. What a strange and captivating little book! It is kind of like a fever dream version of the few Queen novels I have read - but I can imagine the reveal having quite a punch in its day. I will definitely be referring to this in future publications on this subject.

 

It's really special, isn't it? It's very much a part of the weird tradition of later Queen, when the books were being ghostwritten by various science fiction writers (this one is by Avram Davidson).

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5 minutes ago, M. Leary said:

I am assuming Avram Davidson is Jewish. Which makes the book all that more interesting.

He was. As were Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee (born Emanuel Benjamin Lepofsky), the cousins who created Queen. For such a WASPy character, Queen has some significant Jewish roots (The Player on the Other Side and, I'd argue, Ten Days' Wonder are both attempts to grapple with the question of Jewish religious expression within the bounds of the detective story--and both are, notably, post-WWII novels). Eighth Day is the only one that digs into this idea of books-as-religious-objects, but I'd venture to suggest that all three come to a similar conclusion (both cousins left the Faith, with one of them--I can't remember which--actually raising his children Episcopalian so they'd "have something to rebel against"). The status of the sacred book in Eighth Day is interesting--particularly since it's presented as a sacred relic bound very much like a Bible. And since no one can read it--except Ellery--its status is almost entirely as a religious object. Whether that status is for good or ill is what comes up for grabs when we are finally given the real identity of the book (and, of course, in some ways this equates literacy with the Fall, etc etc etc).

 

 

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So fascinating. I find it curious that the physical book as a religious object, or probably better described in Benjamin terms as having some kind of numinous status, is more concretely experienced in spaces like Ellery fandom. Or insert your pulp lit or literary genre island.

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Well, EQ--as with other pulp/lit genres--is largely neglected, which brings about the collector's passion. Your mention of Benjamin brought to mind this passage from The Arcades Project (H1a, 2):

 

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What is decisive in collecting is that the object is detached from all its original functions in order to enter into the closest conceivable relation to things of the same kind. This relation is the diametric opposite of any utility, and falls into the peculiar category of completeness. What is this "completeness"? It is a grand attempt to overcome the wholly irrational character of the object's mere presence at hand through its integration into a new, expressly devised historical system: the collection [....] Collecting is a form of practical memory, and of all the profane manifestations of "nearness" it is the most binding [....]

 

And, turning the page, in H2, 5:

 

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Possession and having are allied with the tactile, and stand in a certain opposition to the optical. Collectors are beings with tactile instincts.

 

And one more, H4, 1:

 

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The physiological side of collecting is important. In the analysis of this behavior, it should not be overlooked that, with the nest-building of birds, collecting acquires a clear biological function. here is apparently an indication to this effect in Vasari's treatise on architecture. Pavlov, too, is supposed to have occupied himself with collecting.

 

The book, in EQ fandom and in other pulp/lit genres, is more than printed matter; if it were otherwise, I wouldn't have multiple editions of the same novel where one would suffice. The pleasure of surveying a well-stocked shelf of old volumes is quite another matter from the pleasure of reading them, as any collector knows (just as a pipe collector needn't smoke his pipes to enjoy them, a cane collector needn't have a bad leg, etc). Freud, the dour old cynic that he was, would probably say these collections have the status of fetish-objects, that displaced libidinal instincts find their outlet in the obsession with acquiring things (and, to be frank, I am not entirely innocent of thinking in the first place of a book-as-religious-object as a kind of fetish in the anthropological sense). I think Benjamin would differ here, though, since for him the act of collection is an act of setting-apart--what might be called sanctification. 

Put another way--the book in the physical world is now something that exists apart from its use-value; we can get as-good-or-better use from a digital book (leaving aside questions of spacial memory, which seems to be hampered by e-books). Thus, to use a physical book is increasingly to value something other than use-value--the tactile qualities alluded to in H2, 5 above. 

I'm not an e-book basher, but I do confess to owning far more physical books, and a large part of this is precisely this tactile element.

Edited by NBooth

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Wow, thanks for those WB passages. I think your word sanctification is the right one. It captures the inherent religiosity of the physical book-collecting impulse - but also helps us perceive the memorializing and tactile elements here as a form of spiritual practice. 

On the physical note, I think we often fail to recognize that our earliest standardized book forms in the Jewish environment are comprised of animal matter. A "book" in antiquity is the end product of an animal being slaughtered, processed in very specific ways, refined carefully, until all these animal bits of skin, tendon, vein, and hoof re-emerge as a book. Some animals were led to temple sacrifice. Some animals were led to the butchers and craftsmen for processing. Either way, living beings became part of religious practice in a material way, the bookmaking process a tactile reminder that preserving the actual theological memory of Judaism requires this very physical process.

We use paper, which is organic matter. So we don't connect books with bios in a similar way. But the legacy of this thought seems also present in the impulses you are describing above.

Edited by M. Leary

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2 hours ago, M. Leary said:

On the physical note, I think we often fail to recognize that our earliest standardized book forms in the Jewish environment are comprised of animal matter. A "book" in antiquity is the end product of an animal being slaughtered, processed in very specific ways, refined carefully, until all these animal bits of skin, tendon, vein, and hoof re-emerge as a book. Some animals were led to temple sacrifice. Some animals were led to the butchers and craftsmen for processing. Either way, living beings became part of religious practice in a material way, the bookmaking process a tactile reminder that preserving the actual theological memory of Judaism requires this very physical process.

We use paper, which is organic matter. So we don't connect books with bios in a similar way. But the legacy of this thought seems also present in the impulses you are describing above.

Good points. It could even be that the continuing affection in some quarters for leather-bound volumes (extending to stuff like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the myriad volumes put out by Easton Press and Barnes & Noble) constitutes a sort of bridge between our use of paper and the ancient use of animal matter.

And then there's stuff like this, which straddles the line between the sanctified and the profane in (I think) interesting--and troubling--ways.

Edited by NBooth

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