In 2004, four US college students were arrested for stealing a book. A rare first edition of John James Audubon’s Birds of America was stored in special collections at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, where the students were enrolled. Dressed in clumsy disguises as rare book collectors, the students seized the book after physically assaulting a librarian; they escaped awkwardly with it down the library stairwell, running into their getaway vehicle, a minivan, parked outside.
This weird and funny, yet unsettling, tale of a failed heist is recounted in the film American Animals, which features interviews with the book thieves themselves. One of the students, Spencer, claims that the heist was his idea and recollects the moment he saw the book on display during a class tour. Something about the book had captivated him that day. Spencer gets three other students involved who become interested in the book for varied reasons: money, boredom, fun. While the students fantasized about strutting into the library, “subduing” the librarian, and coolly removing the book, their plan unfolded quite differently in reality. The heist ended in a flurry of confusion and chaos: arrest, prison sentences, ruined college aspirations, embarrassment, anger—and a book safely returned to the library.
Isn’t American Animals simply the familiar story of college recklessness? College guys clumsily commit a crime and assault a woman in the process. We’ve heard this story before. But what would it look like to view this story not as one centered on college students but rather as one about the book? Indeed, Bruno Latour has proposed an object-centered approach to modern politics. People aren’t motivated by principles, ideologies, or high-minded ideals—but rather by objects, things, or as Latour puts it, “matters of concern.”
Like the college book thieves, ancient people also imagined themselves assembled around a book. The Qurʼān, for instance, famously declares Muslims, Jews, and Christians to be fellow kindred who belong to a common book—the People of the Book (ahl al-kitāb). As the Qurʼān sees it, it’s not theology nor doctrine that binds Muslims, Christians, and Jews together but a shared object. But the People don’t assemble because they agree on how the Book ought to be put to use but precisely because they disagree. Reviving the old etymology of “thing” from “Ding” or an archaic form of an assembly, Latour points out that “we don’t assemble because we agree, look alike, feel good, are socially compatible or wish to fuse together but because we are brought by divisive matters of concerns.” The Book divides us, but it also brings us together into assembly with unexpected interlocutors who are all concerned with the Book for their own, often conflicting, reasons.
Consider the wildly popular account of the Qurʼān’s origins, the medieval Legend of Sergius Baḥīrā. In this Christian rendition of Islamic history, the Qurʼān is born in the hands of a mischievous monk, Sergius Baḥīrā. Banished from a monastery for his strange behavior, Sergius roams the Arabian desert looking for trouble when he stumbles upon a young boy named Muhammad. Sergius writes a book, which eventually becomes known as “Qurʼān,” and instructs Muhammad to teach it to a local group of people. But the monk’s prank spirals out of control. The book becomes acclaimed and renowned across lands. One version of the story ends with Sergius on his deathbed in a pit of regret for what he had unknowingly unleashed: “I have committed a sin for which there is no forgiveness,” he sobs.
Taken as a story of a book—rather than one of a renegade monk—the Legend of Sergius Baḥīrā traces how the book attracts and assembles together different people who harbor disparate concerns over it. From the moment the book leaves Sergius, it takes on a life of its own and passes among different hands who put it to different uses; it is written, stolen, corrupted, burned, and then written all over again. One stage of the book’s life involves Kaʿb al-Aḥbār, a Jewish convert to Islam who appears in Islamic historiography as an expert in scripture. But this Christian revisionist history transforms Kaʽb into a malicious scribe who manages to steal the book and plant false information within it. At another point, years after Sergius’ death, the book garners the attention of the Umayyad governor al-Ḥajjāj ibn Yūsuf who orders an assembly of learned men to determine what to do with it. After deciding that the book is nothing more than laughable gibberish, they burn the book and then write a new one.
Sergius’ story not only illustrates how we imagine books as objects that assemble us together with unlikely companions; it also shows the variety of ways we engage with them. Sergius instructs Muhammad to kiss and caress the book. A cow carries the book. Kaʽb al-Aḥbār steals the book. A governor burns the book. Likewise, the college students steal, mishandle, and drop the book on the ground. But something obvious is lacking in both stories: the books are hardly read. Across all the hands it passes through and journeys it embarks upon, Sergius’ book is only read at the very end of the story to declare its error. One of the college students briefly flips through a first edition of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which they snatched alongside Birds of America. Reading is only one small stage in the life of the book and sometimes not even a part of it at all.
Isn’t there a certain book that many people lay claim to, but don’t often read? That’s the Bible, or as Timothy Beal puts it, “the most revered book never read.” Despite the Bible’s prominence as the most-sold book in the history of print, it’s a book people seem to know little about. Americans notoriously lack in biblical literacy yet believe that the Bible contains all of life’s answers. To be sure, as Beal points out, American Christians are in fact reading their Bibles but are doing so in ways that engage with the “iconic idea of the Bible”—that is, a book that contains clear solutions to life’s problems between two covers—rather than the biblical text itself. Biblezines, “meaning-driven” translations, and graphic novel Bibles are just a few examples of how the idea of the Bible dominates Christian reading practices. For while Birds of America’s extraordinary monetary value loomed large in the book thieves’ minds, the value of the Bible rests in its affective power—or in Beal’s terms, its ability to satisfy “felt needs.” For example, graphic novel Bibles present biblical stories in illustrated form but contain little verbatim biblical text. A felt need is nevertheless fulfilled: the reader feels like they are reading the Bible. Graphic novel Bibles may even feel more “biblical” than biblical literature in that they are streamlined, jargon-free, and relevant to the modern world. Feeling sometimes takes precedent over reading.
How else does the Bible as a revered, but not always read, object figure in the public imagination, and what do we imagine the Bible doing? Let’s take former President Trump’s visit to St. John’s Episcopal Church in June 2020, which followed the violent evacuation of peaceful protestors from Lafayette Square. Trump wielding the Bible in one hand in front of the church sparked concern from all sides of the political spectrum. For liberals, particularly members of the clergy, Trump’s photoshoot reduced the Bible to nothing more than a prop for a political stunt. Conservatives, in contrast, championed Trump’s right to use the Bible as he saw fit. Trump’s Bible, then, became a nexus of concern, uniting people together who expressed unease, anxiety, and interest over how it should be used. This collective concern over Trump’s Bible resonates with what Latour termed a “hidden geography” or “ways that map out a public space profoundly different from what is usually recognized under the label of the ‘political.’” Our concern lies with the Bible itself, not Trump.
“I just wish he opened it every once in a while instead of just brandishing it,” President Biden said in response to Trump. But brandishing the Bible isn’t something new. The medieval Christian-Muslim disputation, known as John and the Emir, depicts the Christian patriarch John Sedra in a fictive theological debate with an anonymous Muslim emir. While John dominates the debate and is portrayed as intellectually superior, the emir occasionally utters a question for John to answer. At one point, the emir asks John to show evidence for Christ as God “in scripture” or literally in the Syriac, “in the book.” John agrees and “without delay, our father showed this in full Greek and Syriac books.” The disputation further depicts an audience of spectators who watch John wield the books. John isn’t depicted as reading the books; rather, the disputation evokes a scene where a triumphant patriarch stands amid a crowd and awes them by brandishing the books. Sound familiar?
That we prefer to wield, steal, and burn our books instead of read them has consequences, often toxic ones. Trump’s Bible-brandishing, for example, embodies what Vincent Wimbush calls “scripturalization” or “the ideology and power dynamics and social and cultural practices built around texts […] the use of texts, textuality and literacy as a means of constructing and maintaining society, as a legitimation of authority and power.” We don’t read the Bible, but we make it do things. Trump waved his Bible in the air as a “weapon” against peaceful protestors who were tear-gassed by police immediately before his photo shoot. Similarly, John brandishes his books against a faceless Muslim opponent who is unable to muster up a response. In both instances, the book is used to draw a line between the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” We may find ourselves in different positions: aligned on the side of the book, maligned as an enemy of the book, or as the guardians who seek to rescue the book from misuse.
How does the book’s author figure in our assemblies? John James Audubon, the 19th-century illustrator of Birds of America, has become a fraught matter of concern. Audubon’s legacy as a white supremacist and enslaver has prompted birding groups to push for a name change of the National Audubon Society. The Society, however, chose to keep its name. But for the college book thieves, it wasn’t Audubon who concerned them but the book itself. The book—originally created by a white supremacist—seemed to take on a life of its own as it was wrapped in a bedsheet and tumbled down a library stairwell. Similarly, Latour’s object-centric approach envisions a public sphere infused with a “subtle ecology” of persons with varied desires, intentions, and motivations as well as varied actors, entities, and ecosystems. In the Legend of Sergius Baḥīrā, the book that eventually becomes known as the Qurʼān undergoes transformations far removed from its original purpose as a monk’s hoax. Even animals become implicated in the book’s circulation. After Sergius writes the book, he places it on the horn of a cow to be “miraculously” delivered to Muhammad. A devious monk, a naïve boy, a cow, a scheming scribe, a governor, and an assembly of learned men all become interconnected through the book. The People of the Book is an assembly that reaches far beyond the original author. The book lives on.
How would the terrain of our public spheres look differently if we view them as centered around books? To return to the college book thieves, it was ultimately the fantasy of the book that motivated them—not Audubon’s Birds of America itself, in which they showed little interest. Strutting into the library in clever disguises, carrying out a flawless heist, and striking it rich was how the students imagined their assembly around the book to unfold. Whether it’s Birds of America or the Bible, books figure in our imagination as objects with special power, be it monetary or affective, that is far greater than their contents. We fantasize about safeguarding them from falling into the wrong hands, orchestrating their theft, protecting them from abuse, and ensuring that they receive proper treatment. Perhaps there’s another “book” that fits the description of “the most revered book never read”: The U.S. Constitution. It’s a book that some imagine as “dead” and others imagine as “living” ; one that is imagined as “speaking for itself” and in need of protection and defense. Yet, it’s a book no one seems to read. We are not simply the People, but the People who assemble around the Book as its thieves, defenders, and stewards—but not always its readers.
Thank you to Maia Kotrosits, Mona Oraby, and Winnifred Sullivan for comments on earlier drafts.