Saturday, June 8, 2013

The allure of books

In spite of my previous complaints about the proposal and membership requirements of the Association for Jewish Studies, I am grateful to them for continuing to provide paper copies of their journals to members without additional cost. Sure, other organizations provide online access to their journals, but there is something much more compelling about getting a physical object in the mail. On my own, I'm unlikely to have randomly opened a PDF of Adam Sacks's fascinating article, "Hannah Arendt's Eichmann Controversy as Destabilizing Transatlantic Text," or a review of a book on Liberal and Evangelical Christian approaches to Zionism, and I would have been the worse for the lack. But having the AJS Review sitting on my coffee table begging to be leafed through makes me much more likely to encounter ideas I would never have thought to look for.

Don't get me wrong: I love electronic publications, especially for research purposes. I love being able to do full-text searches. I love being able to have thousands of resources as close as my smartphone. I love being able to pump e-books through a sexy Scottish text-to-speech synthesizer so I can pretend Shirley Manson is reading me An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding. (OK, maybe that's just me...) But I am also a librarian's son, and I can't imagine giving up the tactile sensation of books, even when I have to schlep nearly 1000 pounds of them (including comics) every time I move. Likewise, no e-book software can hope to match the beauty and readability of a skilled typesetter, or the feel of a good binding. (Pick up a volume from the Loeb Classical Library or one of the Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions if you doubt me.)

I suppose my ideal solution would be what the evil lawyers used on the TV show Angel: a shelf of beautifully-bound blank books that magically call forth any text in history to fill the pages. I don't doubt the technology will be feasible within a decade or two; I just hope people haven't forgotten about books qua books before then.

(This could also precipitate a scholarly excusus on the effects of the use of codices rather than scrolls on the spread of early Christianity and its interpretive approaches to scripture, but I have developed tennis elbow despite my lifelong aversion to the game, and typing is becoming painful.)

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