Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Changes in Jewish publishing - response

Gil Student wrote an article in Jewish Action, the OU magazine, on the changes in Jewish and mainstream publishing. He avoided the one big question looming on the horizon of Jewish publishing, as it is beginning to make inroads into mainstream publishing: the e-book.

He addresses the information-chunking and short-attention-span issues pretty well.

But there need to be heterim found for e-book readers on Shabbos, if we're not to have people dropped from Orthodoxy for "half-shabbos", esp. as more and more seforim are online in PDF and etext, if they wish to learn Torah stored in an ebook reader. Do you really learn all those seforim in your shrank, bought when a kid in yeshiva, or are they mostly for show, and occasional reference?

I carry around a good-sized library in my e-book reader, whether Torah or fiction, academic or popular material. Until people start using iPads or Kindle DX's widely, things like Gemara pages will still be difficult, although who knows - maybe the small-format Gemara may yet make a comeback. I have, for instance, a scanned PDF of Bava Kamma from the Lemberg half-page edition on the ebook-reader. Legible, but barely, on the 3x4" screen. But if I can get e-texts of Rishonim from Bar-Ilan, in pieces (how many blatt gemara does an in-depth once-a-week shiur cover, after all), that makes it more accessible to be on the Palm or the EZ-Reader.

The standard Gemara page was defined by Bomberg in the 1520s, because he issued the first full set of Shas. It made sense to keep using the same pagination for standard reference. Why did he use that page size (folio pages)? Ultimately, because of the size of sheep. Sheep are a certain size, so their skins are a certain size, which governs the dimensions of parchment pages made from those skins.

Technology has changed. We need no longer be governed by the sizes of medieval sheep. It is certainly possible to maintain indicators to standard pagination in text of other configurations (just look at, e.g., a two-volume two-column Zohar of the 17th century which has indicators of the pagination of the by-then standard three-volume single-column Zohar, so you can find page references easily.

So too here - as e-readers and pad computers improve, we should be able to use them with cross-linked etexts of the Talmud, Tanach, Midrashim Rishonim and Acharonim. Must we continue to spend hundreds of dollars on dead trees for use on Shabbos alone? Perhaps rabbis should work with electrical engineers to design an e-book reader that will not violate Shabbos, as Tzomet has done for doctors and the handicapped. Perhaps we should resurrect the arguments used by RSZA, and only not implemented out of respect for the Chazon Ish, and find ways to use solid-state technology lehagdil Torah uleha'adirah. After all, we don't slavishly follow the Chazon Ish, at least not in Galut, where we don't eat normal gelatin (which the CI approved).

If we don't find ways to adapt to such changing technology, then we, and our dead-tree obsession, will be left in the dustbin of history, along with our decaying paper.

7 comments:

Gil Student said...

Thank you for the comments. Yes, my working assumption is that e-readers will never be accepted by mainstream Orthodoxy. More than anything, it is a sociological observation although I did once address the halakhic issues.

Garnel Ironheart said...

There is the volume of learning but there is also the style of learning.
There's something special about flipping through a gemara, hunting on the shelf for that Rashba, smelling the must on the pages of that old chumash that you don't get from Ebooks.

And frankly, you don't NEED e-books. Yes they're convenient and a great resource but anyone who violates Shabbos davka to use an e-book needs to give his pampered head a shake.

thanbo said...

Garnel, the market is not ready yet for such a transformation. But it's coming. The profusion of ebook formats, the lack of portability from device to device, the size vs. weight issue, these are all going to have to be resolved before ebooks take over.

Ebooks are still only a tiny percentage of sales at mainstream publishers. And I don't know about you, but I prefer to read on paper than on a screen. So I print out a lot of blogs and things, even if it loses the immediacy, to read over Shabbos.

But for learning on the subway? Nothing beats an ebook. When I was first learning to read Gemara, in my 20s, I was spreading out across several seats on the subway, with Soncino gemara and Frank dictionary, and the rest of my bookbag had to go somewhere. Ebooks aren't fast enough at switching texts, or finding pages, yet, to substitute for that, but I really wish they were. It would be much easier, and I could do it at rush hour, instead of going to work really late so I have room to spread out.

I may not switch between seforim as much now, but having the sefer on the ebook - well, if the screen were bigger, it would help.

Just because ebooks are still in their clunky infancy, doesn't mean that change isn't coming.

S. said...

Garnel, in fairness there is something special about a handwritten text too, but eventually everyone got over that.

That said, it's too early in the game to predict that the e-reader is going to become standard and there's plenty of time to avoid dealing with it from a shabbos perspective, and since we avoid halachic problems until we can't, expect no Orthodox e-reading for a good long time, if ever.

Maybe I'm old fashioned, but given the absolute cacaphony of sources at my finger tips 6 days a week, I find it very difficult to just sit with basic sources. On shabbos its pretty much my only option. Maybe the way we will cope with e-readers is having melachadike and shabbosdike styles of learning/ reading, with shabbos a simpler day, with more basic sources.

thanbo said...

It's true, thanks to hebrewbooks.org and such places, I don't need the chumash/rashi, the mishna/rav/ikar-toyt, the mishna brura, the tanya, the tehillim, the kitzur SA, that I carefully assembled in the office for basic reference.

S. said...

Also, sheep guy is exaggerating. Yes, it's true that early printers modeled their books on manuscripts, but paper long existed by Bomberg's time, and his books were printed on paper, except for a few special editions for the very, very, very rich (as opposed to the just very, very rich, who would buy paper). And as sheep guy admitted, you could fold sheets of shepselach and make smaller pages.

Books were big because - why shouldn't they have been? You weren't going to take your Talmud onto the subway, and if you were like most people, your eyes didn't work so well (and corrective lenses didn't exist, or were rare once they did), and the lighting after dark wasn't that great. In addition, books were big deals, not pulp novels. These seem to me to be sufficient reasons why they were so large.

thanbo said...

Aderaba, you said it yourself, deluxe editions were printed on vellum. So your press and your typesetting were limited by the parchment size - paper could be cut down to size, but you weren't going to re-set all the type for 50 vellum copies (Gutenberg Bible estimated 50 vellum and 450 paper copies printed). Similarly, books were bound in leather, usually goat, similar size to sheep, so you're again limited by the size of the goat skin.

Too big and it's unwieldly. They didn't necessarily use the biggest type, either - ever see some of those early books? Take the Cremona zohar, or the Bomberg talmud, the type for Rashi wasn't so big either. And for those of us with the bad eyes, think about depth of field - I have trouble managing a gemara or shulchan aruch even WITH glasses. Angle of view.