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How and Why Books Matter

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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.

Published: Jun 25, 2019

Book Contributors


Section Chapter Authors
List of Figures James Watts
Acknowledgements James Watts
The Iconic Books Project James Watts
Chapter 1
How Books Matter: The Three Dimensions of Scriptures James Watts
Chapter 2
Iconic Books and Texts James Watts
Chapter 3
Relic Texts James Watts
Chapter 4
Iconic Digital Texts: How Rituals Materialize Virtual Texts James Watts
Chapter 5
Desecrated Scriptures and the News Media James Watts
Chapter 6
Ancient Iconic Texts James Watts
Chapter 7
Rival Iconic Texts: Ten Commandments Monuments and the U.S. Constitution James Watts
Chapter 8
Book Aniconism: The Codex, Translation and Beliefs about Immaterial Texts James Watts
Chapter 9
Mass Literacy and Scholarly Expertise James Watts
Chapter 10
Why Books Matter: Preservation and Disposal James Watts
End Matter
Bibliography James Watts
Author Index James Watts
Subject Index James Watts


This important collection of essays from James W. Watts fills in many gaps left by previous studies of books in general, and religious scriptures in particular, that prioritize meaning in influence of specific words without consideration for the physical media and performative affects surrounding those words.
The wide range of topics addressed and examples used in this volume demonstrate its usefulness to scholars in multiple fields that deal with how and why the phenomena of books and texts, especially those with the status of scripture, exert influence and authority in individual lives and social groups. For those who are already familiar with Watts' writing, this volume adds additional nuance to his previous studies and the numerous illustrations act as a helpful resource for further investigations.

This is an immensely important work that brings together a vast array of information that is sure to challenge widely shared assumptions and stimulate deep thought. The breadth of the author’s knowledge and insights is stunning, and his juxtaposition of different traditions cannot help but draw attention to how much we have in common, even with those from whom we most firmly differentiate ourselves. It will be hard for anyone to come away from this book, or even its individual chapters, without having learned something about other traditions and, often, one’s own.
Biblical Theology Bulletin