A recent Associated Press story celebrated the achievement of Phillip Patterson. In an age when we just can’t get enough technology, when we live with, sleep with, and dream of electronically generated reality, Mr. Patterson was feted for his arcane accomplishment. Decidedly low tech, at that. After four years Phillip Patterson has finished copying a book, word-for-word. I don’t even have to mention which book, because we already know it can only be the book that Americans recognize without reading. It is the iconic book. The holy book. Sometimes working up to 14 hours a day on the quest, according to AP, Patterson was not undertaking a spiritual journey here. He was simply wanting to learn about the book. If it had been any other book, it would hardly have been newsworthy.
I have recently been introduced to the concept of the iconic book. A colleague of mine kindly shared the idea during a campus visit. He and I happen to share advanced training in reading the same book, but, as he pointed out, it is the book and not its contents that our society recognizes. This is what makes it an iconic book. When we go to court we are asked to place our hands upon it and swear—something the book itself would doubtlessly consider some form of idolatry. We use it for inaugurating the highest officials in our land. We see it laid out in public places and private homes. We consider harming or disrespecting it to be an act of sacrilege. To us, it is more than paper, ink, leather and glue.
The dedication of Phillip Patterson ought to be celebrated. As he noted, to learn more about a book, you have to be willing to dig deeply. Look at every single word. Not that such treatment is fashionable. In a society enamored of power, we prefer the power of the iconic book over its often troubling content. It is certainly much easier trumpeting it than reading it. As I listen to the debates about public policy, the endless attempts to legislate morality, I ponder how little people actually read Mr. Patterson’s book. That’s what makes his accomplishment so remarkable. In producing an iconic book, a book that I don’t need to name because anyone might figure out what it is, our protagonist actually read it. In this age of technology, that is an accomplishment to be celebrated indeed.