Is the E-Book Good for the Jews?

The Wondering Jew on the People of the Kindle

I read books every day. On the subway, at home and at my local library, where I know the librarians and keep track of the shelves they restock.

But my love of books may be going out of style. This year Amazon released the second generation of the Kindle, software that allows readers to access hundreds of books from a handheld digital device. According to Amazon’s website, the Kindle “reads like real paper,” is “lighter than a typical paperback” and can even read text out loud. The Kindle Store sells over 320,000 books and Apple has introduced a Kindle application in the iPhone App Store.

So nu, is it good for the Jews?

As Judaism protects texts so much that there are genizot, cemeteries for holy writings, literature is a vital piece of the culture, but the advent of the Kindle may mean the end of that culture as we know it.

Organizations like the Jewish Book Council  (JBC), whose mission is to support the production of Jewish books, face an uncertain future. Will there one day be a Jewish Kindle Council?

Professionals in the Jewish literature industry do not seem worried. Although she recognizes the power of new technology, Carolyn Hessel, director of the Jewish Book Council, does not see print media having an expiration date. “There are going to develop different means of media,” she said, “but this change won’t take place quickly.”

Meanwhile, Amazon predicts the demise of print as we know it. “Over time, we believe that analog reading, be it paper books, magazines, newspapers, etc., will be replaced by digital,” said Cinthia Portugal, a spokesperson for

The Jewish Publication Society (JPS) has moved in a different direction than the JBC, putting its biblical resources online in a project called “Tagged Tanakh” that will, according to spokesperson Alx Block, “literally move bible study into an interactive web world.  With all of these texts now being linked together, people will have access to more material as they want it.”

But Drexel University sophomore Casey Steinberg sees a safe haven for the religious printed word. “I think most religions are so traditional that it’s not even imaginable to think about a synagogue without print text,” she said.

Books are not alone in the progression from analog to digital, and Block sees their evolution as similar to that of music. “When we moved from wax records to 8 tracks and then from cassette tapes to CDs, the only thing that happened to music was that the quality got better,” he said. “Knowledge and learning aren’t going anywhere; it’s the way that it’s delivered that will change.”

Literature’s material will grow, as new authors and ideas are introduced. However, its vehicle is undergoing change.
Kindle has also been getting widespread media attention as an educational technological tool. Ali Goldfarb, a freshman at Colgate University, said, “Kindle is really cool to use, but I don’t think it’s practical enough to take over the literature industry.”

Whatever the technology may be, it is clear that reading as a recreational and educational activity will not disappear, and that the technology may serve to enhance it.

“While readers’ preferred format for reading books will likely move more and more to digital, we think the act of reading, sitting down with great content, will continue to be a favorite activity of people,» Portugal said.

Jews are only 2% of the United States population, but Hessel notes that more non-Jews are reading Jewish literature: perhaps the best way to learn about another culture is through its books. “With inter-marriages happening more often, the non-Jewish individual in the relationship becomes very interested in Jewish culture and life,” she said.

Others share Hessel’s view. “I know in public high school we definitely used to read more about Jews as religious people more so than any other group,” Steinberg said.

So is the Kindle good for the Jews? Block believes that Jewish readership will improve and grow with time and cites enhanced accessibility to literature being the reason for an increase in readership. In fact, he says, Kindle could bring a “cool” vibe to reading for younger generations.

“Kids that are born with this technology built into their world are going to expect an interactive experience with everything that they do, and Jewish text absolutely fits into that canon,» Block said. But considering the dire economic straits in which the country finds itself he added, “The printed book is still one of the cheapest forms of entertainment.”

4 Older Responses to “Is the E-Book Good for the Jews?”

  1. Bruce Skelly
    September 21, 2009 at 12:11 pm #

    If I recall a recent exchange I had with ArtScroll recently, they are concerned about the Kindle and other readers using e-Ink technology because they say without power the words remain on the page for years, thus making them permanent.
    With other readers, such as the Kindle software on the iPhone, the words don’t remain when the battery runs out, so this is not permanent.
    Also a big issue with them is DRM. I can write a book about a technical subject, say Microsoft Word 2007, and I can issue that book without DRM, and take my chances. After all, it already has a limited shelf life. But with works like a TANAKH, what is the shelf life? Years, decades, centuries?

  2. Wendy Leibowitz
    September 21, 2009 at 12:11 pm #

    I’m thrilled with my Kindle. Of course it doesn’t replace paper, but just to be able to take a dozen “books” with me to a coffee shop for my toddler (complete with illustrations)saves my back, and this is good for ending the image and reality of the stooped-over Jew.
    But you still can’t access many Michael Chabon titles–specifically, the Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. Now, there’s a project for the Jewish Kindle Council!
    Second project: to obtain a little backlighting for the next iteration of the Kindle, so we can read on darkened airplanes. Many Jews have glasses, but there are limits.
    The Kindle is wonderful for anyone who likes to read.

  3. Alexandra Weiss
    September 22, 2009 at 4:23 pm #

    I have noticed that more and more people transition into digital readers. It’s is more efficient (can carry more books around), greener – better for our world since you don’t have to kill as many trees, makes reading material more accessible to people, I guess it’s good for the Jews and better for everybody. However, I am not ready to give up the warm cozy feeling of ending my day in bed with a good book in my hands.

  4. Robin
    September 22, 2009 at 4:32 pm #

    I’ve been using my Kindle pretty heavily for my college coursework. Amazon touts the Kindle as a coup for environmentalists — no more paper! That saves trees and lightens my bookbag considerably, but one feature hasn’t been talked about that much in the e-reader vs. books debate: e-readers require a power source. Texts are no longer timeless if you’re running on reserve power. Sure, the Kindle battery can last for 14 days. But if your “desert island books” are loaded onto your Kindle, you better hope you get rescued fast.

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