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December 2, 2014

Jamie Metzl on Sacred Texts and Books as Objects

Posted by emily

Jamie Metzl is the author of GENESIS CODE, a “thriller of the near-future” dealing with issues of human genetic enhancement in the context of a future US-China rivalry. He also has an impressive list of accomplishments, including stints with the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the U.S. State Department and the National Security Council. Here, Jamie ponders the significance of books as physical objects in this overwhelmingly digital age --- especially when it comes to traditionally hand-written religious texts. Just don’t send him another copy of the Torah; he already has plenty.

The most dreaded package delivered to my door in 1981 Kansas City announced itself with distinct and ominous packaging.

Jewish tradition says that a bar mitzvah is a boy’s passage to manhood. From a broad cultural perspective, maybe yes. From the perspective of a 13-year-old kid with no previous source of income, however, the checks coming in the mail were a bit more exciting than the box, blue and heavy, carrying the printed version of the five Books of Moses. The first copy I received was not so thrilling. The 10th even less so.

And there they sat on my bookshelf, untouched and accruing dust, until, 15 years later, it hit me.

The “it” here was not some kind of visitation, and I’d begun to discover the genius of Buddhism and other religious and secular traditions in the intervening years. The “it,” in a world just beginning to explore the ever-growing significance of the digital revolution, was the strange and brilliant choice Judaism had made about the physicality of the book as an object.

Traditional Judaism, like traditional Christianity, held that sacred texts were hand-written on parchment --- the Jewish Torah and the Christian illuminated manuscripts --- each painstakingly created by religious experts. With the advent of the printing press, however, Judaism and Christianity went their separate ways. Christianity held that printed bibles had the same religious significance as the traditional hand-written ones. Judaism, on the other hand, decided to stick with the Torahs: Only a Torah hand-written in a particular way by a particular type of person on a particular type of parchment would be the real thing. Everything else, like the books on my shelf, didn’t count the same way.

I thought a lot about that decision as the digital age unfolded. As a great lover of books, I felt myself not only drawn to their words, but to the physical presence of the books themselves --- their smell; their weight; the way they absorbed, for used or library books at least, some strange essence of past readers. But with the words and the physical object of books starting to go their separate ways in the burgeoning electronic world, I always wondered if we were losing something. Which brought me back to the decisions made post-Gutenberg.

I love my Kindle, but there is an intimacy of books that I, a product of my time, deeply value. I’ve written three books, including my just-published novel, GENESIS CODE, and it’s hard to describe the feeling of joy and satisfaction when encountering the first published copy of one of my books. It’s the same words as the final edit of my digital manuscript, but something essential has also changed as my words have taken on a physical life of their own.

But the book, as much as I love it, will need to make its own case if it is to survive. It may be that physical books will be better for large photographs, or for beaches, or for bathrooms, but it will be a tough fight.

When the movie camera was first created, producers would set up static cameras and film plays to make movies. Putting the words of a novel on a Kindle is a similar first step that will seem silly to future generations. The digital world is about possibility, interactivity and connection, and the future of literature (thank you, Marshall Mcluhan) will adapt to the medium. Readers will interact with writers, and literature will seem more like a video game --- a defined universe with many options --- than a linear path from A to B. Some things will be gained, others lost, but the world of letters will be forever changed.

But some zealots, myself among them, will hold out with Torahs, dog-eared copies of Kawabata and, I hope, a few physical copies of the books I’ve poured so much of my soul into creating.

(…And thank you, dear friends of my parents, for the books. If you’d like to borrow them, they are unmoved on the bookshelf in my parents’ home in Kansas City.)