It used to be only hardcore bibliophiles had heard of books like the Voynich manuscript, the Codex Seraphinianus, or Carl Jung’s The Red Book.
In my research for FEAST OF SHADOWS last year, I discovered another biblioconundrum, Book From the Sky (c. 1987-91) by Chinese artist Xu Bing.
Similar to the asemic writing of Luigi Serafini’s Codex, Bing’s book consists entirely several thousand gibberish glyphs, where that is roughly the number of commonly used characters in everyday written Chinese.
Bing constructed his glyphs using traditional radicals — the strokes that compose Chinese characters — but none of them have any meaning, despite that they look exactly like the real thing.
Book from the Sky (also translatable as “Book from Heaven” or “Divine Writing”) was then printed in the style of the fine editions of the Song (960-1279) and Ming dynasties (1368-1644). [Note: Between the two was the Yuan dynasty, when China was ruled by the Mongols.]
Block printing was invented in China in the 8th century. Movable type was invented by a man called Bi Sheng between the years 1041 and 1048 — 400 years before Gutenberg, who introduced the idea to Europe.
(Gutenberg’s significant contribution to printing was the combination of existing elements with the screw-type press commonly used in agriculture, which made production more economical.)
Xu Bing replicated the traditional method, carving his characters into pearwood and then arranging them in columns and printing them on long sheets. And yet, through four volumes, 604 pages, and 126 printed copies, none of it has any literal meaning. The meaning is the work itself.
This short video from Khan Academy talks a little about what that might be.
In 10,000 years, when biomechanical androids are excavating the ruins of man, will they puzzle over paper fragments of Book from the Sky as we puzzle over the Voynich manuscript, trying to discern its meaning?
In fantasy and occult fiction, there is another kind of biblioconundrum: the evil book.
I have always been uncomfortable with the idea of an evil book, as if knowledge — even the false or fanatical — was ever bad. Even the “black arts,” if they existed, would be worth study if only to discover how to undo them.
In FEAST OF SHADOWS, I follow Lovecraft and others in having a Book of Shadows, a Necronomicon, which must be destroyed, but that symbolism always irked me — more so after I learned of Lovecraft’s racism and xenophobia.
His Necronomicon is penned by a “mad Arab,” and in that way, he was following the chauvinism of earlier centuries that viewed foreign religion, especially Islam, as heretical and demonic — not something to be understood, something to be destroyed. Something of which people should not even be aware. Something to purge from the libraries of the world.
It’s since become a standard trope in fantasy and horror, which is moderately disturbing — that we so readily accept there exist books that should be burned, or that knowledge corrupts.
I went ahead with it because I didn’t have an alternative.
Then I came up with one.
“It isn’t a book,” he objected. He touched his split lip gingerly with his tongue and grimaced. “A book is never an evil thing. Not in itself. All knowledge, even knowledge of the dark, is useful. Knowledge is nothing to be feared.” He sat on the grass cross-legged and coughed. Every part of him was dripping.
“So if it’s not a book, what is it?”
“Nebuchadnezzar transcribed what was whispered to him through the flames into a language of his own devising, which was why it was undecipherable.”
“Yes, everyone knows that.”
“But he was a fool. It’s not the language that matters. That’s why the ancients spoke of the power of the Word—logos in the Greek. It’s why Master Newton was obsessed with Biblical numerology. He understood that that’s simply how gods talk. They don’t make guttural noises, like animals. Divine language has a—a higher-order structure, something very difficult for us even to comprehend. You think the Nameless are so stupid as to send across a code that could be broken simply by writing it backwards, or in a foreign tongue?
“They had to transmit it as a text because in Nebuchadnezzar’s time that was the height of our art. The only way anyone here could record information was by scribbling symbols on pages. If they had it to do over, today they might send a sequence of DNA for us to grow in a lab. But it was never the script that mattered. What mattered were the second-order glyphs embedded in the information itself. You see?”
His head and shoulders dropped in frustration. “Call it a code,” he said. “If you must. I suspect the glyphs can rearrange themselves in response to certain cues or conditions, and in so doing, they can also rearrange the text. It isn’t a book of spells and incantations, but it contains those things—many more than are displayed on its pages.
“When it was lost, when it sensed it was not being used, it became an antenna—of sorts. A transmitter you might say. The ancient ones knew the old king would try to trick them, so they made certain the book could be found, no matter where or how it was hidden, as long as their followers discovered the correct way to listen.
“It is also a well—or battery, if you prefer—from which endless darkness flows. It can be used to power spells, like the amulets of Zaragoza. The Necronomicon is all of those things and none of them. It is not anything so crude as a mechanism. It is closer to the emergent complexity of life than it is to a book or a machine. That is why it could never be copied. Many reproductions were made, but each was stillborn. For there is no one here who speaks the language of the gods.”
I scowled. “So why not send more?”
“The barter was for a text. A kingdom for a revelation. Theoretically . . . the glyphs could sustain a portal, if one could be opened, from which more like it could come across. However, if the seekers of the dark could achieve that, then there would be no need for anther book. They could simply summon the old ones themselves, or their armies, and return the world to bondage.” He studied my face, dour as it was. “Now do you see? It has but one purpose: to rekindle the ancient war. So tell me. Do you think that such a thing could be destroyed by beating on it with a hammer? Or shouting incantations at it?”
“No,” I said softly. “Probably not.”
“And that is how I know it endured. There are other signs—the great wars of the last century, the new viruses and plagues that emerged after, the inexorable warming of the earth. But it is always the simple explanation that reveals the truth. When Nebuchadnezzar called on the old ones for aid, the vanity of the king gave them that which they most desired. A chance. They would not have sent something across that could simply be burned or hacked or erased with a pencil. How else could it have endured for three thousand years?”
“Then how will we destroy it?”
He shook his head. “I do not know.
cover image by Nebezial