My Word: Hebrew Book Week and the bigger story

Every summer, Israelis from all sectors are on the same page as they peruse the latest books, translations and related commodities in hundreds of events across the country.

June 14, 2019 01:13
Readers check out this year's selection of books at Tel Aviv's Book Week at Rabin Square on June 6,

Readers check out this year's selection of books at Tel Aviv's Book Week at Rabin Square on June 6, 2018. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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It’s not hard to read my mind: It’s full of books. Or more to the point, it’s full of Hebrew Book Week events. The annual “book festival” is something to write home about.

Every summer, Israelis from all sectors are on the same page as they peruse the latest books, translations and related commodities in hundreds of events across the country.

For book lovers, it’s a fairy tale come true. True, many wonder whether it wouldn’t be fairer to lower the prices in general rather than waiting for Book Week in June to offer special discounts. And friends and colleagues who are writers note that they gain more fame than fortune despite all their hard work. But Hebrew Book Week is still such a quintessential part of Israeli culture that one neighbor told me she thinks of it as a defining feature.

As usual, the National Library, mandated to store a copy of every book published in the country, released figures in honor of the occasion. Reading between the lines, you can tell that despite fears that the digital age would be the final chapter in the book industry’s history, it is too early to write a eulogy. Maybe as a natural result of the growing population, or perhaps because of the relative ease of self-publishing, there has been an increase in the number of books that saw light of day.

According to the Annual Book Report, 8,571 books were published in 2018, around 2,000 more than were published in 2008 and 879 more than were published in 2017.

And that’s only part of the story.

The vast majority, 85.6% of all the publications, were original works, a slight increase compared to 2017; 91% of the books were published in Hebrew; 3.9% in English; 2.9% were in Arabic and 1.1% were in Russian. Although the figure for Arabic-language publications is low, it’s been suggested that this could reflect that some authors prefer to publish overseas to reach a broader potential Arabic-speaking audience.

Most of the translated books were originally published in English, followed by German (4.1%), French (4%), Arabic (1.1%) and Swedish (1%). I’m still trying to figure out that last statistic; maybe I should take the opportunity of Book Week to broaden my knowledge of Swedish literature to include something more than the much-loved The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared and the children’s book The Wonderful Adventures of Nils.

There has been a small drop in the number of children’s books, 1,045 in 2018, 11 fewer than the previous year, but in one significant way, the world of children’s literature seems to have turned over a new leaf: The number of children’s books relating to those with disabilities and special needs has doubled compared to the last decade: 52 books since 2010 compared to 26 the previous decade. There’s a way to go, but at least special-needs kids are not almost completely hidden as they were – literally – in the 1950s, when only two children’s books noted their existence.

Acknowledging that the times are changing, the Education Ministry this week launched a pilot project supplying free access to audio books for young teens. Called “Pocket Library,” the program is aimed at gaining children’s attention through listening to books and stories while they’re out and about and then hopefully translating that into a greater interest in actual reading – to grab their ears as it were.

Last year, 430 digital books and 550 audio books joined the National Library’s archives.

Poetry is also in motion. There’s a slight rise in the number of books of poems and prose, including 348 poetry books (which vastly outnumbers the 88 books of short stories.)

There’s a growing realm of sci-fi and fantasy books (mainly translated), which the National Library report suggests is indicative of a worldwide trend. Biographies seem to have a life of their own: More than 400 biographies were published in 2018, about 20% more than the previous year. Out of these, 48 books were about Holocaust survivors and were written by second- or third-generation family members. And despite the Internet and its sticky worldwide Web, last year also recorded a rise in the number of reference books, including cookbooks, hiking guides and fitness guides.

Hebrew writer Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg (1856-1927) – better known by his pen name, Ahad Ha’am – famously said: “More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” As far as I’m concerned, turning off all electronic devices for the Sabbath has kept me sane and recharged my own batteries. It probably has also been a factor in preserving the love of the printed word, reading being a popular pastime among those abstaining from phones and other screens. As much as Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat helps keep the People of the Book.

The National Library data show that at least 1,330 books on Judaism and Jewish thought were published last year and – another statistic of which it is clearly fond – of the non-religious books written for haredi (ultra-Orthodox) readers, 80% were written by women. That reflects a different story.

There are three main centers of Hebrew Book Week activities: in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv; at the First Station in Jerusalem, and at the Merkaz HaCarmel Auditorium in Haifa, but, as every year, there are many other events taking place in malls, bookstores, libraries and community centers across the country. Sadly, however, there seem to be far fewer activities taking place outside of the main cities than in years gone by.

Living in the capital, I consider myself particularly lucky on many counts – including being blessed with easy access to books. Apart from the local library – where the children’s section is a far cry from the quiet and stern atmosphere of my British childhood – there are also plentiful free lending libraries.

The Train Track Park has several bus shelters now converted into colorful give-and-take libraries and a local park has a few eclectically stocked shelves. Many times when I have dropped off old books, trying to make some room in my tiny apartment, I have returned with even more. But what is a home without books?

Jerusalem also has good, and sometimes quirky, bookstores. In some you can not only lose yourself in a good book, but also get lost in time, transported back to a different era. A personal favorite is Tmol Shilshom, one of several that feature the winning combination of books and good food, surrounded by old stone arches. Providing food for thought, the National Library is sponsoring talks (in Hebrew) for Book Week at various Jerusalem restaurants, including Tmol Shilshom and Shosh Cafe. Cafe Michael is offering an intriguing talk titled: “Apologies to Our Readers: Strange and Surprising Journalistic Mistakes in Reports on Literature and Authors.”

It’s the perfect title for a Hebrew Book Week event. Nonetheless, I’m asking that you don’t read too much into it.

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