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To Kindle a Soul

For thousands of years humanity has depended on the information, stories and guidance of books. Books are so essential to the development of society that we devote special attention to the means of written communication when studying any period in ancient history. We learn about the papyrus scrolls used to document the laws and tenets of ancient Egypt and hear about stone tablets used to facilitate intellectual discovery in Ancient Greece. When it comes to more modern histories, there is also a strong focus on physical written works. Most of us can readily identify Johan Gutenberg as the guy who invented the printing press in 1439. We analyze newspapers and important publications, tracing their impact and noting their historical significance. In short, books have been around for a while, and they’ve always been important.

But I don’t think anyone needs to be convinced how central books are to every aspect of our experience as human beings. After all, we are the people of the book, right? In case you forgot, I’ll remind you how the centrality of books is not just historical. As Yeshiva students, we spend countless hours each week poring over the texts of our BIble, sifrei halacha, and the Gemara. We rely on a sturdy mesorah that ensures us our sifrei Torah are kosher (and deal with a complex set of halakhot if there is even one mistake) and can create great chiddushim from what may seem like the smallest change in phraseology. We avoid resolving a commentary to the question of girsa changes or typos by “the guys who printed it”.

These are all products of a world in which written communication was something physical. Until recently, books and the information they conveyed were guaranteed to end up on a tangible page somewhere. Whether you were the King of England or a bachur in the beis medrash of Ponovezh, you could always hold the book you were reading. You could touch the words. You could smell the pages. You risked getting ink on your hands. There was something special about books, regardless of the words inside. Fast forward a whole bunch of years and society progressed. Technology slowly improved. First there were blogs, online newspapers and scanned copies of physical books. We built an internet that could host an infinite wealth of information. Who needs ink on a page? Save the trees. Say goodbye to big bulky dictionaries and encyclopedias. We could do without those. It’s all online anyway.

There were a good number of years when internet and print media coexisted. We checked the news online, but made sure we still read the newspaper. We didn’t place laptops loaded with the Bar-Ilan program beside Vilna Gemaras. There was something intangibly less holy about the computer version. We knew the technology was able to get us all the information and text we could ever want, but we were skeptical of the quality. Same with secular stuff. We weren’t ready to embrace the experience, and forgo the countless hours our predecessors invested in writing physical books. We didn’t know if the digital version would provide us with the same experience. Many wondered, “Will I feel as good about it if I do shnayim mikrah from a laptop?” or “Can I feel the same emotions Emily Dickinson was conveying if I read her poem online?” In both the secular and Torah realms, there was a brief time when society was hesitant to equate physical books with digital text.

But in the past few years technology companies have upped their game. With smartphones, tablets and e-Readers came the loss of all reservation. Today any popular book can be acquired digitally. No questions. Popular books from hundreds of languages are now available on the Barnes and Noble Nook or Amazon’s Kindle. And if you don’t want to spend another $179 for a specialized device for e-books, there are free Kindle Apps available for the iPad, PC and smartphones. Once you have one of these things, it becomes so much easier to just download your textbook. With five button clicks and a seventy-six-second wait, you can have almost any textbook at your fingertips. And it will only weigh 8.7 ounces (if you get the newest model of the Kindle). These companies make it too easy for us to give up old fashioned bound books. Newspapers and magazines automatically downloaded each day. Kindle just announced its lending library, which will allow users to “borrow” digital copies of popular titles for free. You can walk around with Shas and poskim in your pocket. Each day, e-Book and tablet technology is growing, adding more content and allowing for more features. Anyone who embraces the new technology can save a lot of time while minimizing technical stresses like finding books and flipping through pages. When enough books are streamlined and the technology is around for long enough, e-Book and tablet users will eventually save money too.

While there are still plenty of people who enjoy reading their Wall Street Journal with their arms fully extended, and many schools use a variety of claims to explain why children should learn things the old-fashion way, many predict the next generation will give up on printed materials completely. Our global tradition as book readers will be nearly extinct in developed countries. Even if this vision of complete extinction isn’t true, there will certainly be a mass shift away from using printed materials. Books will be another thing of the past.

For Orthodox Jews, however, printed material will never lose its value or prevalence. We are steeped too deeply in studying ink and paper. We have extensive literature on the laws of tefillin, mezuzot, and sifrei Torah to remind us how important physical writing is to our tradition. When it comes to learning, we believe in “Open a book, read what it says, follow it”, not “log on, search for the keyword, copy and paste.” Books will never lose popularity to technology, because on a global level, most people learning in a yeshiva anywhere in the world would be penalized if caught with laptop, even if they were “preparing mareh mekomos.” Forget that we’ll never be able to use our Kindle on Shabbos, many argue that using a computer or tablet somehow affects the experience. That’s hard for some of us to digest. Here at YU, students can be seen tapping away at the keys of a laptop in shiurim and sedarim throughout the year. It’s quicker. We can collaborate. I can study better for the bechina.

Make what you will of technology’s new offerings. Embrace them and be convenienced a bit or shun them and maybe connect to the deeper experience. The specs of these devices are incredibly impressive. I was so impressed and tempted to purchase one that I converted what was set forth as a product review for Amazon’s Kindle into this broader discussion of what we as YU guys have to gain or lose by relying on newer technologies. Some guys swear by it for books and sefarim alike. Others are reserved, scared that bringing technology into our reading and learning will somehow compromise the wisdom and depth we hope to gain through the text. Who knows.