Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Book Library in a Digital Age

I love my book collection. We have books in almost every room of our home, and they give me never-ending pleasure. 

On a Shabbat visit of my yeshiva students, they began to discuss whether it was worth accumulating books in a digital age. After all, most of our music and our photographs, our documentation and correspondence, has all shifted to the computer or hand-held e-device. It is worth asking why we still hold on to books in this day and age. Will they become obsolete?

I have an exceptionally strong attachment to my library. My well-worn Mishna Kahati sits next to to my Mishna Berura with my carefully written notes and highlighting. My Shas (Talmud) was a gift from my grandfather z"l for my bar-mitzva. A shelf of Rav Kook's philosophy and letters sits adjacent to a similar shelf of the writings of Rav Soloveitchik. Israeli poetry, contemporary fiction, books of my mentors Rav Amital and Rav Lichtenstein, classic Responsa, Bible commentary, new and old. Interesting combinations: Scholem and Shagar; Mandela and Scharansky, the Rambam alongside the Kuzari, Louis Jacobs with Rabbi Jakobovitz, and so forth. My library is my world. Every volume is a friend. Some volumes have shared deep and touching moments with me, others continue to accompany me on a daily basis, some will always be distant acquaintances, and there are others that I have yet to converse with, but I am happy for the presence of each and every one of them. This one I bought at Book Week, that one has a great autograph, another I picked out of a Jerusalem recycling dumpster that lay open, this is the massekhet that I am currently learning, and my battered Tanakh has over twenty-five years of mileage behind it.

This paean to my library was stimulated by an eloquent piece by Leon Wieseltier that I read today (link h/t Bookjed) . It elegantly and accurately articulates the perennial need for the authentic, old fashioned books; the hold-in-your-hand, have-on-the-shelf type. I couldn't say it better. Enjoy! :

THE LIBRARY, like the book, is under assault by the new technologies, which propose to collect and to deliver texts differently, more efficiently, outside of space and in a rush of time. If ever I might find a kind word for the coming post-bibliographical world it would be this week, when I have to pack up the thousands of volumes in my office and reassemble them a short distance away—they are so heavy, they take up so much room, and so on; but even now, with the crates piled high in the hall, what I see most plainly about the books is that they are beautiful. They take up room? Of course they do: they are an environment; atoms, not bits. My books are not dead weight, they are live weight—matter infused by spirit, every one of them, even the silliest. They do not block the horizon; they draw it. They free me from the prison of contemporaneity: one should not live only in one’s own time. A wall of books is a wall of windows. And a book is more than a text: even if every book in my library is on Google Books, my library is not on Google Books. A library has a personality, a temperament. (Sometimes a dull one.) Its books show the scars of use and the wear of need. They are defaced—no, ornamented—by markings and notes and private symbols of assent and dissent, and these vandalisms are traces of the excitations of thought and feeling, which is why they are delightful to discover in old books: they introduce a person. There is something inhuman about the pristinity of digital publication. It lacks fingerprints. But the copy of a book that is on my shelf is my copy. It is unlike any other copy, it has been individuated; and even those books that I have not yet opened—unread books are an essential element of a library—were acquired for the further cultivation of a particular admixture of interests and beliefs, and every one of them will have its hour. The knowledge that qualifies one to be one’s own librarian is partly self-knowledge. The richness, or the incoherence, of a library is the richness, or the incoherence, of the self.

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