Monday, February 21, 2011
Are reports of the death of the Book greatly exaggerated?
A couple of years ago, I had the unique privilege to accompany a group of my students to The Valmadonna Trust Library a collection of over 13,000 printed Hebrew books and manuscripts, which was on display for a week at Sotheby's in NYC. Seeing Jewish books shelved floor to ceiling in warehouse sized rooms, many opened to reveal beautiful illustrations on the title page complementing their holy text, was a once-in-a-lifetime exhilarating experience. The only thing that comes close to this, although it is a pale second place, is my yearly pilgrimage to the Yeshiva University SOY Seforim Sale.
As Jews, we have always had a romance with the book. I fondly remember a bechina I had with Rav Shraga Feivel Paretzky ZT”L, the bochen for the Yeshiva, when I was in 10th grade at MTA. We were studying Mesechet Gittin. Rav Paretzky ZT"L gathered a group of six of us around a long table and started peppering us with questions. Through his socratic questioning we came to a new understanding of the sugya. When he was finished, he showed us a very old Hebrew book and said, "Do you know where all your questions and answers you just gave me came from? They came from this sefer by Rav Yaakov Gesundheit." He then opened to the first page and read it to us. "Warsaw 1868, that's when this sefer was printed," he exclaimed. "Do you know why that excites me? It means that over 100 years ago in Poland they were having the same discussion in learning that we are having and their students had that same discussion and their students' students until it was passed down until today." I don't recall the specific Talmudic argument we had on that day but I have inculcated his lesson. The importance of the book in Judaism is not merely the fact that it is a source of information. Rather, it is a link in the chain of the mesorah going back to Har Sinai.
But, it appears that the book as we know it is dying. Eli Kannai, Chief Educational Technology Officer of the Avi Chai Foundation, recently directed me to a hypothetical Academic Library "Autopsy Report" from the Chronicle of Higher Education. The thesis of this report, which seems highly likely to be proven true, is that by 2050, the library will be no more. Books will become obsolete as all books and journal articles will be fully digitized to be accessed anytime, anywhere using computers or portable e-readers.
This process is already occurring through a convergence of many technologies including the Google Book Project which is digitizing all the world's libraries of books, inexpensive and user-friendly portable e-readers like Amazon's Kindle or computer based free e-readers like the Blio Reader which not only allow you to read books but also let you highlight words, make annotations, and even have the book read back to you. In the case of the Blio, each word is highlighted as it is read which should a boon for people requiring assistive learning devices to help them with their reading.
In the area of Judaic studies, the web-based Bar Ilan Responsa Project and Otzar HaHochma each offer tens of thousands of fully searchable books while Hebrew Books offers thousands of rare seforim for free. The implications of this for Shabbos use are obvious and are beginning to be discussed. (See Rabbi Gil Student's posting and Rabbi Rozen of Zomet quoted in this article from Ynet.)
The bigger issue is the one I dealt with above. How will the people of the book deal with the possible demise of the book? This is not just a Jewish issue. A recent New York Times article bemoans the fact that with the fazing out of physical books we will lose the art of writing notes in the margins. The hilarious spoof below waxes poetic about the advantages of the book:
There are obviously areas where the advent of the e-reader is a no-brainer. The printing, transport, and distribution of newspapers and magazines to subscribers, only to be thrown away a day or a week later, is tremendously wasteful and will quickly be replaced by electronic devices. Books that are updated yearly or even more frequently such as textbooks, encyclopedias, and journals are already moving to the totally digital age. Soon this will probably spread to more popular works of both fiction and non-fiction as e-readers become even less expensive and more physically attractive and reliable. In the future, books might in fact become an expensive luxury; a decorative device to "show off" one's library rather than a source for information and entertainment.
But for Jews something bigger is at stake, a loss of our connection to our previous generations through the book. It is for this reason that I believe that reports of the death of the book are greatly exaggerated, at least when it comes to seforim. Believe me, I understand greatly the advantage to limud Torah that fully searchable e-readers will provide both for Baal Habatim and Rabbanim. However, the combination of the desire for limud Torah on Shabbos coupled with the need to stay connected to the traditional learning method of the Beis Medrash means that, I hope, the physical book will never go away.
A hybrid approach is more likely, similar to what we are already seeing in some Batei Medrash today. Students will still learn from a printed Gemara perhaps with a Tanach, Mishna Torah, or small set of Shas close at hand (I can dream can't I?). During the week, they will also have an e-reader nearby to look up the gamut of rabbinic text from Rishonim and Acharonim on the page to obscure Midrashim.
Perhaps this will only be the method of choice for Shabbos while during a weekday chavrusa session, only an e-reader Talmudic text will be used, complete with the "Vilna" Tzuras Hadaf and active hyperlinks using the original hyperlinkers, Mesoras HaShas, Ein Mishpat/Ner Mitzvah, and Torah Ohr, to parallel Talmudic, Halakhic, and biblical texts in addition to a database of tens of thousands of other seforim. If that is the case, something will be gained in terms of ease of learning but I am afraid something might be lost as well. We will see. To be continued...