Borderline Views: A festival of books

Scholarship and education are what 2,000 years of Diaspora were all about.

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 scholarship.
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 iPad books.
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.
THE 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 freedoms.
But to his credit, this didn’t dissuade him from coming here to receive the prize, despite strong pressures to boycott the country.
But 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 books.
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 imagination.
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 Geopolitics.