The People of the e-Book

From Gutenberg to the Kindle – the reading goes on

The book, apparently, is dead. After a half millennium of dominance, digital forms of reading are threatening the physical book with extinction. In America, where the adoption of technology is a good indicator of what’s going to happen in the UK, last year’s Christmas sales of e-readers just about doubled their market penetration. Even in the UK, Kindles, Nooks, iPads and others have been so successful in grabbing the book market that Amazon UK has stated that it now sells more ebooks than print books. As the producer of the Kindle, Amazon has a vested interest in proclaiming the triumph of the ebook and further squeezing paper publishers, but the trend is undeniable.

Death knells for the book have sounded ever since its invention in the 15th century. Writing in The New York Times, Leah Price describes how, since the early 19th century, newspapers, radio, television and the cinema have all been portrayed as mortal threats to the book:

Théophile Gautier’s novel ‘Mademoiselle de Maupin’ had already declared that ‘the newspaper is killing the book, as the book killed architecture.’ This was in 1835. And Gautier was only one-upping Victor Hugo’s ‘Hunchback of Notre- Dame,’ which, four years earlier, depicted an archdeacon worrying the book would kill the cathedral, and a bookseller complaining that newfangled printing presses were throwing the scribes out of work. (The novel is set a quarter-century after Gutenberg’s first Bible, when a thriving industry of manuscript-on-demand was forced to readjust.)

If the issue were simply a change of medium, with the product remaining largely identical, there would be little to talk about. The changes in technology, however, are leading to changes in what and, more importantly, how we read. In his new book Zoo Time Howard Jacobson’s alter ego, Guy Ableman savages digital publishing, furious at its proponents’ lack of concern for substance. Jacobson rails at the proliferation of buzz words and marketing at the expense of quality, especially in the realm of literary fiction — writing whose style is worthy of savour and which transcends its content:

The future of fiction was not in the traditional form; other platforms — that was the very word he used: ‘platforms’ — were waiting to be exploited. To name but one, the story app. Reading no longer meant going to bed with a book you were ashamed to admit you couldn’t finish. Reading was now as little or as much, as frequent or as rare, wherever you did or didn’t want it, at the desk or on the move. We had a historic opportunity to rescue reading from the word.

In this reported speech Jacobson’s despair at the consumerism of the marketing rhetoric also hints at a faux nostalgia for reading and a grudging acknowledgement of the convenience of the new platforms. A golden age of mass literary appreciation never actually happened but, while the gatekeepers might now seem to be merely champions of marketable pabulum, the ubiquity, immediacy and ease of reading means that a new golden age could be around the corner.

A similar concern is exhibited by Joshua Foer in last year’s Moonwalking With Einstein. Foer outlines the difference between intensive and extensive reading. In the former we read a few texts or even a single one extremely closely. Before printing, and even for some centuries afterwards, all reading was intensive reading. Today, however, we tend towards extensive reading, our promiscuous appetites devour a multiplicity of books and sources that are increasingly ill-differentiated and rarely re-read. Our culture values breadth of reading over profundity of understanding to such an extent that ‘widely read’ is a term of approval.

It isn’t how much we read that counts, but how well, and how open-mindedly. Whether we work from scripture or constitution, human civilisation — and paradigmatically Jewish civilisation — has come from the profound historical scrutiny and annotation of texts. In rabbinic thought there are four levels of reading, each of which the reader needs to pass through in order to understand a text — traditionally, the Torah — fully. Reading a text once, even with a dictionary, takes us to the first of these levels, what the rabbis call the p’shat, the simple, literal sense. The next level, remez, is allegorical, looking beyond literal meaning to uncover broader philosophical ideas, often through extended analysis of individual letters or words. Drash, the third level, is the midrashic interpretation. Progressing through these levels — even without reaching what the kabbalists called the sod, the highest, hidden meaning available only to the initiated — requires work, commitment and sensitivity to stylistic and linguistic nuance. Far from contradicting one another, these four levels interact to provide the reader with a complex, multivalent understanding of the text.

Jews have not adopted the moniker “People of the Book” purely due to a fondness for published stories. For centuries books were an investment in intensive reading. For those who wanted to know the news there were taverns or billboards, pamphlets or newsletters. It has been the indefatigable scrutiny of generations of disparate scholars applying competing claims of reason and social contexts to the interpretation of Divine scriptures that has made Jewish culture. Books were the primary technology that allowed an entire people, scattered across half the globe, to hone themselves and their societies on the same thing, repeatedly. The tool is key. You need a microscope to split an atom; you need to be on the same page to split hairs.

The very difficulty of these interpretations is both a concern and an opportunity. Generations of scrutiny form not only codes of law and behaviour, but also the individuals within the societies governed by those codes. The biblical tale of “The Sacrifice of Abraham” teaches us the commonplace that human slaughter is wrong, but the dilemmas that it poses for a person of faith — whether the son is Ishmael as Muslims believe, or Isaac as Jews are taught — are far starker and less assimilable. Muslim or Jewish readers face the never-ending task of confronting the father of their faith as he prepares to kill his son. With a limited number of printed books to consult, we were trained to struggle with this difficulty, to strengthen our minds and faculties as we wrestled with the idea of a God who could order a man to kill his own son, and a patriarch who would follow such a decree. Now, with a millennium of entertainment a swipe away, it’s far easier just to lose ourselves in an ever more digressive search down the hyperlinked rabbit-hole.


People have always complained about changing technologies. In the 19th century the Luddites destroyed mechanical looms and in 30 years people will be complaining about the disappearance of the e-reader in favour of the neural implant. It’s important to separate the object of study from the tool that facilitates it. In his seminal 1936 work, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduceability, Walter Benjamin notes that works of art seem to have an “aura” lacked by their reproductions. But, because that “aura” is hard to define, he specifies that the crucial difference between the artwork and its reproduction is that the reproduction is physically separate from the original: “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” It loses the special aura that surrounds the artwork like holiness surrounds the sacred. Benjamin suggests that this is not quite applicable to books, which have a distinct modality: “print is merely a special, though particularly important case.” Language as art is, generally, not about its material reproduction: a first edition Middlemarch has no more literary value than the same novel in cheapest paperback.

However, ebooks are changing our attitudes to the value of print, so that its particular modality no longer seems quite as distinct as it did for Benjamin. Lendable, individual and personal, physical books in the age of electronic dissemination have now become a contemporary equivalent of Benjamin’s “works of art.” The mechanically-reproduced object has inherited the mantle of the auratic artwork. With bookcases as family shrines, our paperbacks are good luck charms, our hardcovers, household gods.

Benjamin touches on the crucial aspect of electronic reproduceability: “technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations that would be out of reach for the original itself.” In the case of a book, however, what is the original? Is it James Joyce’s handwritten manuscript? Is it Howard Jacobson’s Microsoft Word document? Is it the Torah as revealed at Sinai? The vague concept of the ‘cloud’, whereby individual or group documents are shared for distribution on the internet, is mistrusted. The need to own, rather than simply access, goods is still strong, and iTunes does well because it taps into the desire to build and control a personal collection on one’s own hard drive.

Even the Aleppo codex, arguably the most important Jewish book ever, was an archive fetishised for a deliberate purpose. The codex project was cutting-edge technology of its era mobilised to a specific, holy task. Matti Friedman, author of The Aleppo Codex, writes that:

The codex crowned centuries of scholarship and was meant to be the perfect version of the 24 books that made up the Bible, a kind of physical incarnation of the heavenly text in a single manuscript. For Jews, every letter and vowel sound in the Hebrew text is crucial — according to one tradition, the entire Torah is one long version of God’s name, which is another way of saying you do not want to get anything wrong. The codex sanctified, even fetishised, the act of reading: above and below the letters were tiny hooks, lines and circles denoting vowels, punctuation and the precise notes to which the words were to be chanted in synagogue. It was an object of nearly unimaginable value to the people who revered it.

The importance of remaining scrupulously accurate in an age of manual reproduction meant that the individual object had to be invested with profound significance. And it was. Three recent books, Tamar Yellin’s 2005 The Genizah at the House of Shepher, Hayim Tawil and Bernard Schneider’s 2010 Crown of Aleppo: The Mystery of the Oldest Hebrew Bible Codex and most recently Friedman’s book all testify to the awe that attended the production and maintenance of the Codex — the book from which the scrolls of the Torah were copied. Friedman describes the painstaking process of the codex’s physical production:

 To prepare the Aleppo Codex, tanners scrubbed, stretched and cut animal hides into folios that were stitched together by craftsmen. Someone scored a grid of lines onto the pages with a sharp instrument, and a scribe, Shlomo Ben-Buya’a, from the town of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee, used iron gall ink to write the Bible’s more than 300,000 Hebrew words one by one. Its completion around 930 C.E. after years of work represented the final condensation of the Hebrew Bible from an ancient oral tradition to a codified text in black ink on parchment — a book.

This bibliopegy is indeed impressive, as was the millennium of protection offered to this wonder of scholarship by the Aleppo community. But the labour was so intensive and the security was so necessary because the codex was at the cutting edge of the archival technology at the time. Comparing the codex to a Kindle, Friedman writes, “An electronic book exists in an infinite number of copies; there is no original. The Aleppo Codex, on the other hand, existed only in its original 500-page manuscript. There were no copies at all, and for this reason its physical safety was always paramount.” As Friedman hints, a museum today will house the codex because of its beauty, scarcity and historical and financial value. But those are all contingent. Its original value lay in its unique containing of the vast amount of rabbinical scholarship that had gone into ensuring its accuracy. If this repository could have been copied exactly and distributed to every Jew in the world (as well as to several electronic and paper caches around the world) the archive would have been far easier to protect and much more useful. Every cultural device at the disposal of the Aleppo community was mobilised to ensure that the codex retained its value, and it did so successfully for 1,000 years.


E-readers provide a glimpse of universal interlocution. For every text published today, there is a possibility of an immediate conversation with millions of people online, some of whom may be reading the same text simultaneously, across different time zones and languages. We can make an instant contribution to the comments and notes of a desired community (assuming that comments sections of books and websites will evolve beyond anonymous mudslinging) and even interact, eventually, with generations of interpretations from our own families.

This new connectivity is a feature Jews have long enjoyed in the Talmud’s multiple commentaries that take place between scholars living centuries apart. The experience of studying Talmud has been radically altered by technological change. Talya Fishman explores the radical change that the advent of printing made to the extended Jewish community, in her 2011 Becoming the People of the Talmud: Oral Torah as Written Tradition in Medieval Jewish Cultures. By making standardised Talmuds widely available throughout Europe, the whole of Ashkenaz was brought, for the first time, onto the same page, transforming the concept of a potentially united Jewish people. Now, thanks to digital development, Jews around the world can be on the same page at the same time. The entire Jewish people has access to the millions of pages of sacred and apocryphal texts, midrash, aggadah and commentaries. Among those millions of electronically-available pages are the pages of the Talmud. ArtScroll, amongst other publishers, has released its Talmud 1.0 app for the iPad. For a mere $800 the ebook reader can hold the entire 73 volumes of the Talmud in a single hand, while using the other hand to access a variety of helpful features, or just scroll through the text. The marketing language is deliberately reassuring:

Version 1.0 of the ArtScroll Digital Talmud contains numerous features which will delight the seasoned Talmud learner, while providing valuable support for the novice. Users of the App will feel at home with the ArtScroll formatting of the Hebrew page of Talmud with its familiar signature commentary on the facing pages. However, at the press of a finger, the learner can access all the notes, including the Talmud with vowel points and commentary while never leaving the original Hebrew page.

Traditionally observant Jews are seamlessly integrating electronic forms of communication with previous modes of dissemination. Yoel Finkelstein, author of Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and the Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy (2011) recently wrote of the new popularity of text message responsa, condensed in free weekly pamphlets. “[T]he most popular column… in Israeli religious-Zionist synagogues is a printed version of the ‘best’ of the previous week’s ‘Shut-SMS’ — question- and-answer SMS, or text-message responsa. According to Hebrew University researcher Sivan Leib-Jacobson, some of religious Zionism’s most influential rabbis receive some 1,500 questions per week, generally (no surprise) from young people. Editors choose around 50 for publication each week.”

While the new forms of reproduction are obviously a mixed bracha, the ubiquity of the screen is also a blessing in disguise for Jewish book publishers. After a week of looking at a multipurpose screen for work, for news, for television, it’s a pleasure to read from an object that is specifically designed for the purpose of displaying a single text. Especially if it’s on shabbat, l’havdil. In 2000, Ari Goldman claimed in Being Jewish: The Spiritual and Cultural Practice of Judaism Today that Shabbat was why the “simple pleasure of reading is alive at least one night a week in our house,” and that still seems to be true today. Indeed, a recent teshuvah by America’s Conservative denomination suggested that e-readers are not appropriate for use on shabbat — not because they use electricity, but because in forming the words on the screen and making a record of their actions, they perform melachah, a category of purposeful constructive change, which is forbidden on Shabbat. So, for books of enduring worth, there’s still a (limited) market.

Bob Stein, founder and Co-Director of the Institute for the Future of the Book, argues that we are still in the early infancy of the electronic book. “We are in 1494,” he tells me, comparing our age to the end of the first half a century after Johannes Gutenberg’s earliest movable type Bible in 1455. Some of the possibilities of the new form are clear — others are still unimaginable. It took centuries for books to get indexes and page numbers. In less than a decade the index has been made all but obsolete by the “search” function. And few people — whether reading in Hebrew, Yiddish, Aramaic, Ladino or even English — will grumble at the ease of finding a translation, definition or annotation. But it is the social possibility of textual analysis that really energises Stein. Texts contain a multitude of possibilities and Stein views the best of them as enduring social pillars that peers or families can engage with, time and again. The family Bible gets passed down in interactive archive form, rather in tangible form. We are emerging from a brief and transient moment in human history, says Stein, where a significant group of people are wealthy enough to own a sizeable library. A hundred years ago people may have owned only a single book; in a hundred years time they may have instant access to a million, but own none.


We are always anxious in the face of new technologies: appropriately, because they do in fact change us. But the People of the Book should not fear the age of digital reading. For a community who read Talmud on iPads, liturgy from printed Siddurs and the Torah from handwritten scrolls, there should be confidence that the creative incorporation of future technology can happen in parallel with the joyous embrace of anachronism. Just as we survived the transition from papyrus to parchment and from parchment to paper, we will survive the transition to the cloud and electronic ink. Our focus, though, must be less on the loss of the physical book and more on cultivating the habits of mind that lead to aesthetic and ethical excellence. Otherwise we are doomed to be, in the words of Liel Leibowitz, Talmudists who have never read the Torah.

Dan Friedman is managing Editor for the Jewish Daily Forward

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  1. BrianOtto Forde says

    But what about the English Book of Common Prayer — 1662 version available at (Yes,

    Considering we just marked the 350th anniversary last August (What did you to celebrate?) and the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice’s publication (which plays with the Book of Common Prayer throughout) last week (28 Jan 2013) it might be worth a thought.

  2. […] death knell a little premature for a people who still read a vellum scroll twice a week? Read more: Jewish Quarterly Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. ▶ No Responses /* 0) { […]

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