Conference Report: SHARP 2014 “Religions of the Book”, 17-20 September 2014, Antwerp/Belgium

1374657596Guest post by Sarah Ströer (WWU Münster, Germany)

From September 17th to 20th the University of Antwerp hosted the 22nd annual conference of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP). The conference bore the title “Religions of the Book” and around 240 scholars of various disciplines gathered to discuss the many implications (download the entire conference program as a PDF here). As a PhD student, my first SHARP conference was also my first major conference altogether, so this was an impressive event.

The keynote lecture that opened the conference on Wednesday afternoon was given by Fania Oz-Salzberger. In her lecture “Jews and Words: A Universal Proposal for Textual Nationhood” Oz-Salzberger addressed the question on what ground Judaism was able to retain its unique tradition over the centuries. “We remain Jews over our common words,” she claimed and thus stressed the importance of words and books to the Jewish tradition. Central to her argument was the role of parenting and of children and books in retaining a Jewish identity. She emphatically called for instilling a love for books in children. While the lecture was predominantly focused on Jewish textual culture, Oz-Salzberger implied a general applicability of her argument to other cultures: nationhood can be based on common books and words.

The three conference days were filled with panels representing an astounding breath of disciplines and geographical areas. The theme ‘religion’ was applied concretely as well as metaphorically and proved to be very fruitful. A few panels stood out to me especially. Session 3D (“Reading Religion II”) on Thursday combined Minna Ahokas’s paper on 18th century Finnish Book Culture with a paper on the concept of reading in early modern texts (Ilkka Mäkinen, Jukka Tyrkkö) and a paper on conversion experiences and controversial reading (Helen Smith), providing a glimpse into different methodologies from linguistics to literature.

Thursday’s plenary session “Challenging Dogma: Lifting the Spirits of Manuscript Technology” is an excellent example for how this conference embraced digital possibilities. The session’s speaker Elaine Treharne could not be in Antwerp in person, but a video clip of her talk was shown and a Q&A session was held via skype. Treharne drew attention to the invisible in manuscripts and how empty spaces should be regarded as conveying meaning.

“Challenging Dogma II: The Study of Jewish and Islamic Book as a Challenge to Book History”, the second plenary session, took place on Friday morning. Emile Schrijver and Dagma Riedel gave thought-provoking insights to the challenges in the study of Jewish and Islamic books respectively. Both speakers stressed that certain preconceived ideas about the book originating in the Western (Christian?) tradition could not be easily applied to their fields. Furthermore, they drew attention to the fact that both the Islamic book as well as the Jewish book formed integral parts of Western book culture.

A highlight for me on Friday was session 7A (“The Cult of Fandom”) which brought together three fascinating papers that applied ‘religion’ on a more metaphorical level: Vivienne Dunstan presented a history of Fanzines for the British TV series ‘Doctor Who’, Beth Driscoll spoke about readers’ experiences at literary festivals, and Melanie Ramdarshan Bold showed how fanfiction presents a challenge to mainstream publishing.

In the evening visits to the exhibitions “Sacred Books” (Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library), “Sacred Places” (MAS), and “POWERPRINT” (Royal Academy of Fine Arts) were scheduled. The day ended with fries and beer in the Royal Academy of Fine Arts.

For Saturday, I would like to mention two sessions. Session 8B (“The Book and Religious Discourse”) neatly combined Tom Deneire’s paper on religions of the book as a conceptual metaphor in seventeenth century humanist literature and Anna Reynold’s study of the religious negotiations of paper in early modern England, which led to a discussion of disciplines and sub-disciplines in Book History and Tom Deneire’s proposal of a “history of ideas of the book”. Furthermore session 9A (“Texts and Authors between Worship and Apocalypse”) offered a good mix of papers on “Twitter as a new Site of Worship” (Simon Rowberry), “Performing Authorship in the Digital Literary Sphere” (Simone Murray) and Jason Ensor’s “A Literary Apocalypse”. This session also witnessed the “magic” of Simon Rowberry’s automated tweeting during his own paper. More generally, the role twitter played at this conference came as a surprise to me. For an event of this size it was certainly helpful to be able to read what had happened in the parallel sessions and what people were excited about (Twitter archive #sharp14).

The conference concluded with the plenary session “Challenging Dogma III: Re-Imagining the Worship of the Book”. The traditional format was supplanted by lightning papers in which Abhijit Gupta, Julie N. Davies, Marina Garone Gravier, and Ruth Finnegan challenged the audience with a picture and a short talk each. Questions were raised about the social implications of Book Studies and about what forms of materiality texts can take. This was a refreshing format which seemed to lead more easily to discussions than traditional formats, both among the speakers themselves as well as between the speakers and the audience.

The conference came to a close with a reception in the Plantin Moretus Museum’s beautiful courtyard and the possibility to explore the museum. SHARP 2014 was a memorable and exciting experience, filled with engaging conversations against the beautiful, historic backdrop of the city of Antwerp. Personally, it reminded me what a broad, exciting, and sometimes surprising field of research Book Studies represents.

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