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7 The Book as Symbol

The Oxford Companion to the Book

Brian Cummings

7 The Book as Symbol 

Brian Cummings

‘Books are not absolutely dead things,’ wrote John Milton in 1644 in *Areopagitica. A book is a physical object, yet it also signifies something abstract, the words and the meanings collected within it. Thus, a book is both less and more than its contents alone. A book is a metonym for the words that we read or for the thoughts that we have as we read them. At one level, like any domestic object, a book takes on the imprint of its producer and its users. Old books have further value as containing the presence of many other readers in the past. Yet, more than other objects, a book is felt to embody not only a physical memory but also a record of past thoughts. The book contains both its reader and its author. In Milton’s more poetic terms, books ‘contain a potency of life in them’, because they ‘preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them’. The book thus achieves a further mystery, of transforming what appears to be purely immaterial and conceptual into something with a concrete form. It is therefore not entirely extravagant for Milton to claim that a book possesses ‘a life beyond life’. Destroying a book, then, Milton says, is like an act of homicide—indeed it is worse than that, since a book encloses the life of more than one person and exists in more than one time. Paradoxically, regardless of the material survival of a physical copy or artefact, a book is something immortal and imperishable.

Curtius found the origin of the idea of the book as a sacred object in the ancient Near East and Egypt, where the production of books was cultic and their possession restricted to a priestly caste. Writing is a mystical act, and scribes are accorded a corresponding status as its masters and interpreters. The ancient Egyptian word for the script now known as hieroglyphs meant ‘words of god’. The earliest inscriptions in the tombs of kings acted not only as a literary record but also as physical totems for the pharaoh to avert danger in the afterlife and to communicate with the gods. In contrast, Curtius asserted, in classical Greece there was ‘hardly any idea of the sacredness of the book’ (Curtius, 304). Indeed in the notorious formulation in Plato’s Phaedrus (274C–276A), writing is purely functional, and fails even to perform properly that function. Knowledge exists in the mind of the philosopher: writing is a mere aide-memoire, and an untrustworthy and ephemeral one at that. Only in the Hellenistic period do the Greeks acquire a ‘culture of books’. In the later grammarians, indeed, things come full circle, and Homer, in whose writing no figure of the book appears, comes to be regarded as a sacred writing. Roman literature repeats the pattern, favouring the idea of a rhetor as a speaker not a writer, until the birth of the *codex produces a new configuration of sensibility.

The material form given to a book has a great deal to do with the symbolic value that is ascribed to it. The Greek word Pentateuch, which the Christian Church used to describe the most sacred part of the ancient Scriptures, the Jewish Torah, means literally the ‘five containers’ in which the scrolls of the text were kept. The *scroll early became a metaphor for what the scroll contained—and perhaps in an extended sense also for the mystery of the relation between the physical text in which God’s words were contained and the spiritual sense of what those words were taken to mean. The laws given to Moses were written on stone tables, which in turn are taken to stand as the embodiment of divine ordinance. The law is then said to be ‘written with the finger of God’ (Exod. 31:18). Those who are of God are written into His ‘book’ (Exod. 32:32); those who have sinned are blotted out. Job reinvents the metaphor to refer to the engraving of an iron pen in lead (with wonderful anachronism, but in the same spirit of applying new media to God’s work, the Authorized Version translated this as ‘printed in a book’, Job 19:23). At other times God writes in wax. But most of all, God discloses Himself in a scroll, the dominant written technology of the ancient world. God bears witness to His purposes in a scroll (Isa. 8:1). At the end of time, ‘the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll’ (Isa. 34:4).

These Hebraic metaphors carried over into the Greek New Testament. In the vision of the end of the world in Revelation, ‘the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together’ (6:14). The passage of time in the created world is conceived as a book which opens and which finally is closed. It is here that what Curtius calls ‘the magnificent religious metaphorics of the book’ reach their symbolic apotheosis. God’s entire intervention in creation is imagined as a book. Just as Ezekiel begins his life as a prophet by eating the book of the divine word (Ezek. 3:1), so it is as a book that St John the Divine imagines the enunciation of the apocalypse (Rev. 5:1). When the dead come before God at the end of things, the books are opened, ‘and whosoever was not found in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire’ (Rev. 20:15).

It is not difficult to see how the symbolic meaning of the book might translate also into the mystical value of the book as artefact. The idea within the Kabbalah of the secret significance of the very letters in which the Torah is transcribed has been traced back to the 1st century bc. The idea of a magical power inscribed into the very letters of the text finds graphic form in the tradition of illuminating letters. The *Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of *Kells are now among the best-known artefacts in the Western world, with their extravagant extensions of the individual letter of Scripture to fill out a whole page in a dazzling display of line, colour, and gilt. The metamorphosis of script into abstract geometry or equally into zoomorphic improvisation transforms the book into an object that is hard to summarize in terms of mere text, even though the initials retain their function at the literal level. The book is a figure of itself as much as it is a figure for the contents that it represents.

The book as symbol, then, can be seen to mediate between a number of features of the life of books, both material and abstract. The sense of the book as a sacred object gives rise to a particular kind of artefactual production which manifests in physical form the status of the book as an object. Even in its textual form, the book becomes more than itself, a visual representation not only of the contents within but of the idea of the book altogether. At least in the case of the Semitic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, this valorization of the book at least partly occurs because of the continual skirmish with iconoclasm. An extraordinary side-effect of this has been the tendency in all three religions towards what can only be described as fetishistic practices of preservation or worship of the material form of the sacred book. The incorporation of the holy book into ritual—the raising of the book, or the carrying of it in procession, or the kissing of the book or kneeling before it—is only the most obvious example of this. Equally widespread is the use of portions of text or even of whole books as amulets or talismans. Hebrew inscriptions worn as amulets are very ancient. Particularly fascinating are the kimiyah or ‘angel-texts’—names of angels or extracts from the Torah written out on *parchment and then encased in a silver or other precious container and worn around the neck or elsewhere on the body. Miniature copies of the Qur’ān were copied using a special script known as ghudar or ‘dust’—so tiny as to be practically illegible—and encased in small jewelled boxes. Although Christian theology often frowned on the use of talismans, the practice of burying a copy of Scripture with the dead was retained. A beautiful example is the *Stonyhurst Gospel—placed inside the coffin of St Cuthbert at Lindisfarne in 698, and discovered intact inside when the saint’s body was translated to Durham Cathedral in 1104. Later archbishops wore it round the neck during ceremonial occasions. *Amory has documented a case of a native American being interred with a medicine ball partially made with a page from a printed bible.

Alongside this exceptional investment in the preservation of the book perhaps also should be placed the corresponding urge to destruction. The practice of *book burning goes back at least to the Qing dynasty in China in the 2nd century bc. In Christianity, burning physical books is virtually synonymous with the pronouncement of bans on heretical ideas. The books of Priscillian of Ávila were burned in 383, and those of Nestorius within a generation. The simultaneous combustion of the heretic’s works with the consumption of his body on the stake was a material symbol of the purging of abstract ideas: Jan Hus was burned with his books at the Council of Constance in 1415, and the same council ordered Wyclif’s bones to be exhumed and burned alongside his writings. Such practices survived the Reformation and transferred into nascent Protestantism: Michael Servetus was burned at Geneva in 1553 with several portions of manuscript and one of his printed works bound around his waist. In the new confessional divisions, the Bible itself came under threat: Tyndale’s New Testament was burned in England in the 1520s by official order. In such turmoil, a book could be found miraculously to survive even as the authorities strove to extinguish it. Just as Pedro Berruguete’s 1480 painting (now in the Prado) of such proceedings against the Cathars showed St Dominic’s works preserved intact alongside the charred detritus of the Cathar texts, so *Foxe reports a burning of Tyndale’s Testaments in 1526 in which the precious books simply refused to catch fire.

The power of the book as a sacred object is bound up with its capacity to be rendered as a symbol. When Dante comes to the summit of heaven, he learns that all the *leaves (the loose *gatherings, quaderni) that have been scattered by sin are now bound together in one volume by love: Legato con amore in un volume (Paradiso, 33.86). Shakespeare frequently has recourse to the image of the world as a book. In Hamlet, the book of memory becomes the symbol of a person’s mortality; Macbeth abounds with metaphors of the book as the repository of time and a figure for death.

At iconic moments in the history of the 20th century, the power of the book as symbolic object has been especially apparent. In 1933, the Nazis infamously burned ‘degenerate’ books in Berlin’s Opernplatz. Conversely, in China during the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s *Little Red Book was carried on the body or held aloft in staged acts of ideological affirmation. Disseminated on a scale to rival even the great religious sacred texts—740 million are believed to have been printed between the first publication in 1961 and the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1969—the Little Red Book gained its value largely from its status as a political icon. Even as the book is demystified and deconsecrated in the modern world, its symbolic value endures. (See also 2, 8, 38.)


H. Amory, ‘The Trout and the Milk: An Ethnobibliographical Talk’, HLB NS 7 (1996), 50–65Find this resource:

    E. R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1953)Find this resource:

      J. Milton, Areopagitica (1644)Find this resource: