What is a Book? Who gets to say, and why? 

We found a great number of books in these letters, and since they contained nothing but superstitions and falsehoods of the devil we burned them all, which they took most grievously, and which gave them great pain.

Fray Diego de Landa

Diego de Landa wrote about the Spanish treatment of Maya vuh, sign carriers in the format of a paper screenfold primed with white finish, during the Conquest of the Yucatan Peninsula (Mignolo 223). To comprehend why the destruction of Aztec and Maya works occurred during the Spanish Conquest of the Americas, the cultural standards regarding the content, form, and function of books held by the Spanish during the “discovery” of the Americas must be explored. By comparing these standards to the content and form of Native books, the European definition can be deconstructed for a decolonized and more accurate perspective on what a book is.

In “Signs and Their Transmission: The Question of the Book in the New World,” Walter Mignolo explains that in terms of content, form, and function, the 16th century European standard for a book was the Bible. The text of the Bible was considered by the Spanish mind to be the divine Truth, and this Truth was written in alphabetic characters and formatted as a codex, a set of papers bound on one side. The written word was Christianity’s chosen method of proselytizing. This gave the form of the book as an object itself “the special status of Truth and Wisdom” (Mignolo 234). Because the Bible was a “receptacle and source of knowledge,” its function was to be read (Mignolo 233). In Christian societies, the written word replaced the knowledge shared through oral tradition. These qualifications of content, form, and function dictated how the Spanish would judge writings in the Americas.

The content of Native American amoxtli and vuh, which the Spanish labeled as books, were considered by the Spanish to be antithetical to the Truth contained within the Bible. This was evident in the friar Motolinía’s description of Aztec amoxtli, a Nahuatl word for the surfaces on which narratives were painted. In his report Motolinía described five “books” written in symbols. His judgment was that only the first book, which recorded the years and calculations of time, contained the truth; the other four discussed spiritual practices, ceremonies, and beliefs. Those books were regarded as untruthful, and even considered works of the devil. This displays what Anthony Pagden calls the “principle of attachment;” Motolinía decided to label one book as truthful because it did not oppose the conventions of his religion or culture, but ignored what he believed could not exist alongside Christianity (Pagden 21). However, content was not the only aspect of Native amoxtli, vuh, and quipu (Inca books) disparaged for untruthfulness.

The format of a book established by the Bible, of alphabetic writing bound in a codex, could not be found in the Americas. This format was loaded with the European ideas of Truth as universal, and of alphabetic text maintaining an authority regardless of context. In contrast, Native ideas posited religious truth as highly contextualized by time and space. Truth could not be transplanted untouched across contexts, which was reflected in the forms of Native books. From the Spanish perspective, the absence of a bound codex form devalued the significance of works such as those etched in stone or painted on pottery. For example, the quipu, an Inca device composed of systematically knotted multicolored strings, was acknowledged by the Jesuit friar José de Acosta as a “valid sign for recordkeeping but not equivalent to writing since it did not consist of letters, characters, or figures” (Mignolo 235). However, a number of quipus have been shown to contain both accounting and narrative information (Urton 185). Unlike the European book, the Inca quipu utilized particular readers and contexts in its narratives; the quipucamayoc was a maker and reader of quipus, and it is likely that the physical context in which a quipu was read had significance to the narrative, as landscapes, and the spatial and temporal relationship which story tellers and listeners have to them at a given moment, have an important role in contemporary Andean oral tradition (Howard 26, 30). Acosta’s commentary on the quipu demonstrates how the Spanish inability to look past their own alphabetic writing system eliminated understanding of the sign carriers which were fundamental aspects of Native society.

Another distinction between European and Native conceptualization of books was in the different interpretations of how texts should function. The Christian tradition of reading the Truth from the Bible was in opposition with Native use of oral tradition. Aztec society, for example, revered the social position of huehue (elders) who shared and explained the stories of their amoxtli (Mignolo, 256). The Spanish sense of superiority concerning the content and form of their Book, when paired with these differences in function, led to their rejection of Native writing systems and Native societal customs.

The view that amoxtli, vuh, and quipu are the same thing as the European book ignores the historical reality of the Spanish Conquest, and the differences in content, form, and function between these objects from different cultures. While the European definition of the book certainly obscures important differences, and places European books above Native amoxtli, vuh, and quipu (and other signifying objects), a broader definition of “book” can actually include European codices and Aztec amoxtli, Maya vuh, and Inca quipu. Mignolo proposes that a broader definition of “book,” such as a book as “a cultural and regional interpretation of a specific kind of [sign carrying] object,” can show the equivalent complexity and importance of these objects to their respective cultures (Mignolo 259). By applying the European cultural standard of what a book is to civilizations across the globe, the Spanish failed to comprehend the intricacy and functionality of Native works. Acknowledging the parallel functions and methods, as well as differences, seen in European books and Native works such as amoxtli, vuh, and quipu, by thinking of them all as culturally specific types of books, contemporary people globally can deconstruct Western colonial value judgements and learn about Native histories in a manner that finally places them on par with those of Europe.

Works cited:

Howard, Rosaleen. “Spinning a Yarn: Landscape, Memory, and Discourse Structure in Quechua Narratives.” Narrative Threads: Accounting and Recounting in Andean Khipu. Eds. Jeffrey Quilter and Gary Urton. Austin: University of Texas Press: 2002. 26-49. Print.

Mignolo, Walter D. “Signs and Their Transmission: The Question of the Book in the New World.” Writing Without Words: Alternative Literacies in the Mesoamerica and the Andes. Eds. Elizabeth Hill Boone and Walter Mignolo. Duke UP, 1994. Print.

Pagden, Anthony. European Encounters with the New World: From Renaissance to Romanticism. New Haven: Yale UP, 1993. Print.

Urton, Gary. “Recording Signs in Narrative-Accounting Khipu.” Narrative Threads: Accounting and Recounting in Andean Khipu. Eds. Jeffrey Quilter and Gary Urton. Austin: University of Texas Press: 2002. 171-196. Print.