The E-Book Revolution, And What It Means
Tue, 02/22/2011
School library supported by JDC. Warsaw, 	Poland, late 1920’s – early 1930’s.
School library supported by JDC. Warsaw, Poland, late 1920’s – early 1930’s.

 If Jews have become almost synonymous with books — “the People of the Book” moniker is not for nothing — then the looming demise of the printed book might raise alarm bells. After all, if Jewish books were to disappear, or even be fundamentally transformed, wouldn’t you expect Jewish culture to change along with it?

That question appears to be on the minds of almost everyone involved with Jewish books these days, from editors and publishers to rabbis and scholars. In at least a dozen interviews with all types of Jewish book experts, responses ran the gamut. Several expressed a giddy sense of promise — the coming accessibility of digitized books would unleash, they felt, a democratization of Jewish knowledge not seen since Gutenberg and his Bible.

But others were more cautious, tempering their predictions with an acute awareness of both recent and historic trends, many none too inspiring. And since predicting the future, let’s face it, makes fools of us all, I see no harm in giving some thoughts of my own. I for one do not own an e-reader, and ever since the iPad came out I’ve developed my own little polemic against it.

It goes like this: the iPad isn’t really an e-reader, at least not primarily, since displaying e-books is just another function it performs among many. In essence, the iPad is the next generation laptop, a “tablet.” It will revolutionize computing the way the laptop did the desktop. That’s why it’s important — not because of what it means for books. But still I dislike reading e-books, or even long magazine articles, on the iPad for the same reason I don’t like reading them on laptops. The backlighting hurts my eyes. And the ubiquitous temptation of the Internet, to say nothing of all those apps, makes it just as distracting.

Yet the alternative is no better. The Kindle and the Nook, both of which I’ve tried, seem like one big aesthetic step backwards. They’re like reading books on an Etch-a-Sketch, I say; I’ll take black ink on paper any day. But I’m no wistful romantic either. The resurgent fetishizing of typewriters, stationery and used printed books, which you find among a certain literary set, is nothing more than a fashion, sentiment masquerading as seriousness. I know that that one day, perhaps not far off, all of us will be reading our books on digital devices. My frustration is that we don’t have an adequate one yet.

But many I spoke with are hopeful that we soon will.

Rabbi Barry Schwartz, CEO of The Jewish Publication Society, told me, “The Jewish community is already a step behind” in the burgeoning transition to e-books. Like many within the Jewish publishing world, he repeated a refrain heard often: publishers of Jewish books are only following the broader publishing world’s lead.

Though JPS’s e-books sales make up only a fraction of the company’s total revenue — 3 to 5 percent, which is about the industry-wide standard — Schwartz is convinced that e-books are the wave of the future. “We’re really talking about crossing the threshold,” he said. “The revelation for me was when I saw [at a recent Bible publisher’s convention] how far biblical technology has come,” he noted. “I said, ‘The Jewish world has got to get into this.’”

But Jewish historians tended to caution against bold assertions, whether Cassandra-like or Pollyannaish.

“There’s a tendency when new technology comes around to polarize the discussion,” said Jeffrey Shandler, a scholar of Jewish culture and media at Rutgers University. People either assume innovations herald the beginning of a new age, or the demise of an older, perhaps better one. “But it’s much more nuanced, and looking back at history there are often consequences that are unanticipated.”

Shandler is no cynic, noting that past inventions, from the lithograph to the copying machine, have transformed Jewish reading habits in significant ways. But he emphasized that no one seemed to guess how it might have beforehand.

Shandler gave the example of “Dial-a-Daf,” an invention by Orthodox rabbis in the 1980s that was meant to give Jews with limited access to beit midrash, or study halls, a chance to hear the day’s Talmudic lesson by simply calling a phone number.

The program never took off among its intended audience — Orthodox Jewish men. Nonetheless, it did have a startling effect on a group traditionally barred from studying rabbinical texts: Orthodox Jewish women, who began flooding the phone lines. “Suddenly, women had access to something they had never had before,” Shandler said.

Eliyahu Stern, a professor of modern Jewish intellectual and cultural life at Yale University, drew another conclusion from history. He noted that one of the great social transformations brought upon by a change in reading technology already happened — in the 19th century. That’s when the printing press really took off, causing the price of books to drop dramatically and making them accessible to a much wider audience.

Stern said it was only in the 19th century that yeshivas were established in large numbers — based on the new availability of religious texts — and only in the 19th century that a secular Jewish literary culture, both Yiddish and English, took root. The social transformation these developments enabled was profound, he added, since mass literacy gave rise to the idea that Jews could achieve social mobility through education. He was cautious, however, about describing what effects the digital revolution has had already, or might yet have, on Jewish culture.

Others said that for every advantage that the Internet and e-books have already provided — from the sudden digital access to manuscripts once locked in faraway libraries, to the instantaneous availability of e-Talmuds and Bernard Malamud’s backlist — notable problems have emerged.

Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, co-founder of ArtScroll, one of the largest publishers of religious texts for Orthodox communities in the English speaking world, said that the technology does not yet exist to publish e-book editions of some of its best-selling texts, like its bilingual editions of the Torah and the Schottenstein Talmud.

Nonetheless, ArtScroll recently began offering 13 other e-books for the iPad — all written by contemporary rabbis, none from the religious canon. But, Zlotowitz wrote in an e-mail exchange, “We are working in the background to prepare all our texts for various eBook platforms.”

Yet ArtScroll and other publishers of religious texts face a hurdle that even new technology may not overcome — Jewish law, particularly the prohibition against using electricity on Shabbat. When asked if the Sabbath laws might slow ArtScroll’s transition to an age of paperless books, Zlotowitz said that it would.

“The universally accepted Halachic position … preclude[s] any practical ability to use these eBook devices on Shabbat,” Zlotowitz wrote. This hasn't stopped some lay people from suggesting totally impractical solutions — or a ‘Shabbos Mode.’” But, he continued, “The issue regarding the use of computers of Shabbat guarantees that the people of the book will never fully become the ‘People of the E-book.’”

Of course ArtScroll is not the only publisher of religious texts. Schwartz’s Jewish Publication Society, which provides texts for many Reform- and Conservative-affiliated schools and synagogues, has been aggressively entering the e-book market. It currently offers 68 e-book titles, including its core texts: the 1917 English language Tanakh, and its updated English Torah.

But Schwartz said he was convinced Jewish publishers could do more. He dismissed the Sabbath law obstacle — “As technology evolves,” he told me, “there’s always a way to figure out a way to get around those problems.” (The Sabbath elevator came to mind, for me.) “To bring out a static e-book is no longer sufficient,” he added, explaining that for the past year he’s been developing what he described as a totally new, interactive “e-Tanakh.”

When it is released, at a date not yet specified, he hopes it will feature things like hyperlinks over specific biblical passages that, when clicked, will open pop-up windows with relevant rabbinical commentary. But another recently released JPS digital-age product — the “Tag Tanakh” — has not yet ushered in the vibrant virtual community of Torah students that Schwartz still hopes for. The “Tag Tanakh” uses social networking and open-source technology, akin to the kinds pioneered by Facebook and Wikipedia, which allow users to post their own commentary and host live discussions online.

Schwartz said that he’s currently in talks with three major institutions that are considering purchasing the product, though none have yet.

I found a critic of the “Tag Tanakh” in Daniel Septimus, editor of the popular MyJewishLearning.com. He said that the reason the “Tag Tanakh” won’t have any significant impact on Jewish learning is that the interest simply isn’t there. Most Jews who want to learn about Judaism do not necessarily want to study Torah and Talmud in that fine detail, Septimus said. And he wonders whether anyone other than a handful of religious institutions will ever purchase the “Tag Tanakh.”

Septimus had his own humbling experience with MyJewishLearning. He explained that when the website was founded in 2002, it had high intellectual ambitions. It originally took a rigorously academic approach to how it presented Jewish life — leapfrogging Jewish books altogether and presenting what is, in essence, an exclusively online Jewish encyclopedia. But the website at first had trouble coming up in a basic Google search because of its strict academic correctness.

Septimus explained, for instance, that an original page he created to explain the Chabad movement had almost no visitors. He began to think that it might have something to do with how he was spelling “Chabad,” which was the way most academic journals did at the time: “habad,” without the “c”. Soon after he added the “c,” which was how most lay people spelled it in a Google search, the site’s Chabad page had hundreds of new hits.

Septimus acknowledged, however, that playing to the wisdom of the crowd has often led his site to simplify its content. Search engines like Google prioritize the websites it displays based on what Google programmers think a user might be looking for. That forces website editors to tailor their content so it will appear highest on Google — and sometimes that means sacrificing quality for accessibility.

Septimus was gesturing toward another sobering prospect that the democratization of knowledge might bring — dumbing it down. And yet I myself would venture that that risk is a necessary one. Like the technological revolutions of the past, the coming one — or better, the one we’re in — holds as much promise as it does peril. In any event, there’s no turning back.

Yet even if many of us will be going to bed soon with our faces aglow from the screens of our tablets, when it comes to predicting the future, every single one of us remains in the dark.