Category: Books

Jumping into the boundless streams of Twitter is not very different from compulsively buying books in the false hope that, one day, you might read them. Of course, you won’t, but this doesn’t matter: it’s the very brief encounter with that possibility that counts. The fire hose of social media tricks us into thinking that, for a fleeting moment, we can play God and conquer every link that is dumped upon us; it gives us that mad utopian hope that, with proper training, we can emerge victorious in the war on information overload.

Evgeny Morozov, “Only Disconnect”, The New Yorker (28 October 2013), 37.

Among Ever-Wasers, the Harvard historian Ann Blair may be the most ambitious. In her book “Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age,” she makes the case that what we’re going through is like what others went through a very long while ago. Against the cartoon history of Shirky or Tooby, Blair argues that the sense of “information overload” was not the consequence of Gutenberg but already in place before printing began. She wants us to resist “trying to reduce the complex causal nexus behind the transition from Renaissance to Enlightenment to the impact of a technology or any particular set of ideas.” Anyway, the crucial revolution was not of print but of paper: “During the later Middle Ages a staggering growth in the production of manuscripts, facilitated by the use of paper, accompanied a great expansion of readers outside the monastic and scholastic contexts.” For that matter, our minds were altered less by books than by index slips. Activities that seem quite twenty-first century, she shows, began when people cut and pasted from one manuscript to another; made aggregated news in compendiums; passed around précis. “Early modern finding devices” were forced into existence: lists of authorities, lists of headings.

Everyone complained about what the new information technologies were doing to our minds. Everyone said that the flood of books produced a restless, fractured attention. Everyone complained that pamphlets and poems were breaking kids’ ability to concentrate, that big good handmade books were ignored, swept aside by printed works that, as Erasmus said, “are foolish, ignorant, malignant, libelous, mad.” The reader consulting a card catalogue in a library was living a revolution as momentous, and as disorienting, as our own. The book index was the search engine of its era, and needed to be explained at length to puzzled researchers—as, for that matter, did the Hermione-like idea of “looking things up.” That uniquely evil and necessary thing the comprehensive review of many different books on a related subject, with the necessary oversimplification of their ideas that it demanded, was already around in 1500, and already being accused of missing all the points. In the period when many of the big, classic books that we no longer have time to read were being written, the general complaint was that there wasn’t enough time to read big, classic books.

Adam Gopnik, “The Information”, The New Yorker (14 & 21 February 2011), 128-129

No other book composed in the early modern period had as profound and lasting an impact on Jewish life as Karo’s. The Shulhan ‘arukh (“The Prepared Table” or “The Ordered Table”) eventually became the standard code of Jewish law throughout Europe and the Mediterranean world. with few exceptions, nearly every Jewish community had accepted it as authoritative within generations of its initial publication. The Shulhan ‘arukh as a “writing” delivered to the Jewish public by Joseph Karo had a truly transformative impact upon Jewish life. In this way, one can speak of Karo’s work as a discourse, as an idea. The book served scholars as a reference work and literate lay people as a manual of Jewish law. It stimulated commentary and controversy, resistance and cooptation. One is hard pressed to find another book written in the early modern period that endured as long as the Shulhan ‘arukh.

Yaacob Dweck, “What Is a Jewish Book?,” AJS Review 34, No. 2 (November 2010), 368.

…it is safe to say that the Shulhan ‘arukh would not have had its staying power as a work of enormous cultural authority had it not become an entirely different text when it appeared in Kraków in 1578–1580 with the glosses of Moses Isserles. Isserles, one of the towering figures of early modern Polish Jewish life, had been at work on his own law code for some time when he learned of Karo’s project. Rather than compete, he decided to append his own glosses with what he claimed were the Ashkenazic customs and practices. In this edition of the Shulhan ‘arukh, one finds a central dynamic of early modern Jewish history on the pages of a printed book: the coexistence, competition, and tension between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. Indeed, the very categories of Ashkenazic and Sephardic are thrown into relief by the reactions to Isserles’ glosses. Thus Hayim ben Bezalel, brother of the famed Maharal, had little patience for Isserles’ attempt to summarize all of Ashkenazic tradition in his glosses and took it as a form of cultural imperialism and an erasure of difference among Ashkenazic and Polish practices from different regions.

Yaacob Dweck, “What Is a Jewish Book?,” AJS Review 34, No. 2 (November 2010), 370.

One of the most venerable of Jewish book practices—Talmud study— has engendered a remarkable series of innovations by dint of the cascade of new media of the past century. These recent developments rest on a much longer history of practices centered on this core text of rabbinic Judaism. As scholars of the early modern period have noted, printed folios of the Talmud, first published in the late fifteenth century, expanded the engagement in rabbinic text study among jewish boys and men throughout the diaspora. beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, photo-offset reproductions of the 1880–1886 “Vilna Romm Shas” not only canonized this edition as definitive but also presented scholars with a daf of unprecedented standardization in both content and form. (The value invested in fixing the format of the daf is implicit in the “pin test,” in which yeshiva students are challenged to identify the words through which a pin, stuck into a page of the Talmud at random, passes on subsequent pages, a skill that relies on memorization of the text as well as knowing its placement on the page.) The standardized daf also facilitated the institution of Daf Yomi—inaugurated by Rabbi Meir Shapiro at the First World Congress of the World Agudath Israel, held in Vienna in 1923—as an international practice that both promotes and regulates Talmud study within a modular rubric.

Jeffrey Shandler, “The Jewish Book and Beyond in Modern Times,” AJS Review 34, No. 2 (November 2010), 382.