E-Reading for the People of the Book: How Jews will Adapt to the Digital Revolution

Source: E-Reading for the People of the Book: How Jews will Adapt to the Digital Revolution

We are living in a Gutenberg moment, plunging wildly into an unprecedented age of transformation whose dark contours obscure the uncertain future. The Information Revolution dwarfs the 18th century Industrial Revolution, which was really great at making things bigger and faster: airplanes travel faster than horses, microwaves cook faster than campfires, but they are still all about visiting relatives or making dinner. Our digital technology, by contrast, thrusts us into change that is radically new. Facebook, for example, evolved out of the idea of a printed student phone book, using the online format to easily expand and update its content. Now, twelve years after it was first launched by students at Harvard, is it anything like a phone book? Even more, is it anything like anything? And for those born after 1995: what’s a phone book?

From the first cuneiform shards to Semitic script, from scribal elegance to mass printing, Jews have always been early adopters. While the Ottoman Empire rejected the first books as ugly, hopelessly deficient replacements for hand-written Arabic calligraphy, Jews scrambled to set up presses, rushing crude editions of precious Hebrew manuscripts into print circulation. Scribal artistry was relegated to ritual documents only, while the less aesthetically pleasing leather-bound books won the day for their sheer utility. Jews recognized that the objective of learning was far more significant than the gourmet appreciation of scribal elegance. The digital revolution, however, poses an unexpected challenge: given the steady migration of books into the cloud, how may observant Jews access them on the Sabbath and holidays, when electronic devices are as banned as brisket in a dairy restaurant?

I humbly predict that Torah scholarship will flourish under the new digital regime. True, it will be harder and harder to purchase conventionally printed versions of less popular works, and Jewish bookstores will have to adapt to an altered supply-and-demand pattern. At the same time, the evolution of radically simple Print-On-Demand technology, combined with the lower threshold of modern self-printing (“indie publishing”) means that more scholars will have more books in perpetual print.

Jewish libraries will look different. Well-studied foundational texts such as the Torah and the Talmud will continue to be published conventionally, probably with many more aesthetic elements and physical improvements to binding and paper quality. Most home libraries will have fewer books, but they will be revered not only for their inherent sanctity but also as objets d’art, cherished family heirlooms like medieval illuminated manuscripts. Other Jewish books, from holy works to contemporary fiction, will migrate almost entirely to tablet-sized e-readers, and consumers will order Print On Demand copies of texts they wish to reserve for Sabbath study. This isn’t the future: it’s been happening for years with the amazing hebrewbooks.org, a site that houses PDFs of rare and out-of-print religious works, as well as an increasing number of works by young independent scholars.

Ironically, print journalism is enjoying a phenomenal renaissance among Jews at a time when secular newspapers are dying, for precisely the same reasons (for those born after 1995, a newspaper is a kind of data-dump printouts of websites so you can read them in places where there’s no Wifi or cell service, like the planet Mars). The physical quality of newspapers and magazines have always concentrated on the ephemeral, leaving more substantive, enduring work to printed books, but what can be more ephemeral than the web? Jews are also consumers of ephemera, but the Sabbath prohibits e-reading, so newspapers fill the gap for the observant. 

We will have fewer physical books on the shelves, but our reading will become richer, more diverse, and more sophisticated. Perhaps counter-intuitively, with less hard copies of books, we will need librarians even more than ever to help us navigate an expanding ocean of literature. On the whole, I’d like to echo the immortal words first recorded by Timbuk3 in 1983: “The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.” Songwriter Pat MacDonald’s sentiment was intentionally ambiguous, alluding to the flash of a nuclear explosion in a world threatened by global thermonuclear war. Jewish readers may also see the digital revolution as the end of the world, but in reality that rough beast, its hour come at last, slouches towards Jerusalem in an entirely different manner. We will survive this just fine, thank you, and in fact we will emerge from the digital revolution stronger than ever.

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