David Newman 58.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In the 30 years I’ve lived here, I have never failed to visit the biannual
International Book Festival in Jerusalem. It is second only to the Frankfurt
Book Festival in Germany, although in recent years it has focused on Israeli or
Jewish-content books to a foreign audience, rather than a mass presentation of
the foreign books themselves.
Over the years, the festival has changed
from a dull presentation of books on tables, to a multimedia presentation of the
world of literature and scholarship accompanied with discussions, lectures and
presentations by world-famous authors. For the professionals, it is a trade
fair, but for the public it is a celebration of the written word – and there
could be no better place than in Israel, given the Jewish tradition of learning
And while this biannual festival focuses on the
international dimension of the book trade, we should not forget the annual
Hebrew book week which takes place every June in every city and town in the
country, offering a wealth of the printed word to Israelis, and encouraging the
continued use of old-fashioned books even in a world of electronic journals and
Israelis are among the world’s biggest consumers of books,
and it is rare to set foot inside a book-free home.
I recall the day
when, as a student in England, I went on an evening visit to a working-class
estate in my town to purchase a second-hand car. I came away from the house with
a strange feeling, and it was only much later, when analyzing the event, that I
realized I had never previously encountered a house in which there was not a
single book. It seemed somehow naked.
I’m sure there are houses like that
here, but they represent a tiny percentage of the population, although probably
growing given the exponential growth in computer usage over the past two
decades. This is also one of the world’s highest per capita users of home
computers, so that any decrease in the use of paper does not have to be
automatically equated with a decline in the amount of reading.
FICTIONAL world which books portray is not disconnected from real-life problems.
Praising the novels of Amos Oz, David Grossman and A.B. Yehoshua, the recipient
of this year’s Jerusalem prize for literature, British author Ian McEwan, in his
acceptance speech on Sunday evening, drew strong parallels between his own focus
on the freedom of the individual (for which he was awarded the prize), to the
problems between Israelis and Palestinians.
He raised disturbing
questions concerning the way the “People of the Book” have become more
associated with occupation and settlement than with individual
But to his credit, this didn’t dissuade him from coming here to
receive the prize, despite strong pressures to boycott the country.
herein lies a dilemma. Israel does not have a well-developed network of public
libraries, or a system where every member of society has automatic and free
access to books and journals, where they can participate in reading events and
discussion groups, meet authors and exchange books regularly. Places where
children returning from school can spend hours engrossed in a text. Access to
books on a computer is also important to today’s younger generation, but it
doesn’t compensate for the atmosphere generated by a real library with real
Neither, surprisingly, are our university libraries up to scratch.
Many small colleges elsewhere have better libraries than most Israeli
universities, and this is particularly damaging to the status of the humanities
and social sciences. Universities here focus on technology, engineering and life
sciences at the expense of the written word, and this is reflected in a growing
obsession with numbers, quantification and research funding, (all of which are
important, and in all of which Israel is a word leader), while libraries, books
and archives are no longer considered so important.
Recruit a young
promising scholar in technology or life sciences to the university and it is
highly probable that he/she will be given a start-up grant of many tens of
thousands of dollars. But recruit an equally promising scholar in literature,
linguistics, philosophy or history and he/she will have to beg – usually
unsuccessfully – and will at best be offered some small change to purchase a few
books. Young scholars rightly argue that there is absolutely no point in helping
to create an academic community in such places as Beersheba if their research
labs are elsewhere – such as at the National Library in Jerusalem, or as is
increasingly the case in European or American libraries. The situation is
becoming worse by the year, and threatening the status of the humanities and
social sciences, the world of philosophy and ideas. The world has become fixated
on technology and profit margins.
As a society, we have to understand
that books are much more than symbols. Books and education are what 2,000 years
of Diaspora were all about. In the long term, the Jewish people will be
remembered for its contribution to scholarship and letters, not its ability to
produce sophisticated weapons of destruction, even though it was born out of
necessity. Technological advancement can never be a replacement for the written
word. We have to reexamine our national priorities and regain a proper balance
between the world of technology and the world of abstract ideas and
The International Book Festival is a convenient biannual
reminder, but it needs to be translated into action by our leaders and
educators.The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social
Sciences at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the
International Journal of