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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

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Finding time for books

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How does one find time for books? One finds time for books by taking it.

Even in our computer age, books are still the best way to preserve and transmit ideas. Not to speak of the diverse pleasures that books bring to readers. The printed book is a neat, compact, well-behaved invention. It is there when you want it. You need no apparatus to deal with it. It slips into your pocket, it fits your hand, it yields to your eye. A book asks no questions about your colour or creed or college degree.

Long ago John Milton declared: “A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose for a life beyond.” He hurled a scornful condemnation against the barbaric practice of consigning books to the hellish flames of the auto-da-fé. “Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature created in God’s image, but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself,” he thundered prophetically.

Jewish tradition, perhaps more than that of any other group, reflects the noble estimate of the value and significance of books. When an ark containing The Book is placed in a room, humble as it might be, that room becomes a shrine. When revered books become old and worn and their pages become lose and separated, it is considered a sacrilege to discard them to the mercy of callous hands or stunted minds or to the whims of shifting winds. Instead they are collected and deposited in the attic of the synagogue, and when space is no longer available, they are buried in a solemn ceremony.

Words of praise for books and reading are widespread and eloquent. In an earlier generation, American author Clarence Day wrote that “the world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall; nations perish; civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build on others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young and still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of me centuries dead.”

The Book of Judges speaks of a city in Judah that Joshua called Kiryat Sefer, Book Town. The library in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem today may well be called a modern Kiryat Sefer. In addition to one million volumes and more than 10,000 periodicals, there are many collections catalogued separately. There are also incunabula, microfilms and manuscripts. I know of no other country in the world whose map lists a Kiryat Sefer.

Finally, there is much to consider in the following two selections from the midrash. The first teaches that the sword and the Book came down wrapped together from heaven. The Holy One said: “Keep what is written in the Book or be delivered to the sword.” The other midrash maintains that a learned bastard stands higher on the social scale than an ignorant high priest.

 

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