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What Do Digital Books Mean for the People of the Book?

What Do Digital Books Mean for the People of the Book?

This week I wrote an essay about how Jewish culture will change in light of the coming e-book revoluion. I talked to at least a dozen Jewish book experts, from scholars and publishers, to readers and rabbis, and there was clearly no consensus about what might happen–only unanimous agreement that something important will.

I basically agree. After all, there hasn’t been an important change to reading habits that hasn’t had some seismic effect on the culture at large, beginning with Gutenberg’s Bible. Without it, the New Testament would not have been made accessible to countless local preachers, who in turn spurned official Catholic dogma and began the Protestant Reformation. You can argue the same thing for Jews of course, with the vast proliferation of print unleashing a wave of sectarian groups, from Lubavitchers to Satmars.

That transformation continues to this day. English-speaking Orthodox Jews relie heavily on the ArtScroll publisher translation. But because of the accessibility and affordability of texts, a myriad of other groups have been able to take root, like Reform and Conservative Jews who largely read texts from the Jewish Publication Society. And of course less observant Jews can count on Yale University Press’ Jewish Lives series or Schocken Books, to name a very small few, for great secular literature.

Certainly the e-reading culture will allow for a similar diversification of Jewish voices. In my essay I argue that, at root, there is no telling what this change will mean for Jewish culture, nor what contours the changes will take. But to think that Jewish life won’t change is perhaps as foolish as trying to guess how it might.

My essay is not yet available online, so in the meantime I’ll post a few links to general articles addressing the future of digital reading. Certainly the impact will not only be fealt by Jews, even if it will have effects that are particular to Jews alone. Here’s a good assortment:

Adam Gopnik in the current New Yorker.

Jonathan Lethem’s instant classic in Harper’s, on the anxiety of influence in the internet age.

Jason Epstein’s recent essay on the e-books and future of publishing, in the New York Review of Books.

Patricia Cohen’s series in the New York Times, on the effect digitization is having on humanities scholars.

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