BOOKed: The Redefining of Reading


A look at how libraries are changing and two possible titles to fill the cold weather months with some intellectual heat


Those who worry about what will happen to traditional books as
e-books continue to grow in popularity might take heart — in a sense — from an end-of-year piece published in The New York Times.
The gist of the article was that libraries have discovered a new way to assist readers now that more and more bookstores are closing shop.
Reporter Karen Ann Cullotta put it this way: “As librarians across the nation struggle with the task of redefining their roles and responsibilities in a digital age, many public libraries are seeing an opportunity to fill the void created by the loss of traditional bookstores. They are increasingly adapting their collections and services based on the demands of library patrons, whom they now call customers.”
Librar­ies, Cullotta continues, are refashioning themselves as “vibrant town squares” that display the newest best sellers, lend out Kindles packed with e-books and provide some “grass-roots” training in new technologies. 
As a source says early in the piece, libraries, like bookstores before them, have limited shelf space. So as these great institutions change with the times, perhaps there may only be space for what’s most popular. 
In this way, libraries are getting “less intimidating,” said Jeannette Woodward, herself a former librarian and author of Creating the Customer-Driven Library: Building on the Bookstore Model.
Says Woodward: “Public libraries tread a fine line. They want to make people happy, and get them in the habit of coming into the library for popular best sellers, even if some of it might be considered junk. But libraries also understand the need for providing good information, which often can only be found at the library.”
That may not be the most enviable development, but for those who love books, it is something.
Here are two new volumes with a good deal more intellectual meat on their bones, especially when compared to Fifty Shades of Grey.
The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography by John J. Collins (272 pages; Princeton University Press)
The most recent entry in Princeton’s “Lives of Great Religious Books” series, Collins’ brief history may appeal to the many people who not that long ago flocked to the Franklin Institute to see the actual scrolls — and all of the accompanying material from the period of their composition.
The author makes it clear from the start that the scrolls might seem an odd candidate for this particular series since they do not represent a single book. Rather, as the scholar writes, they are “a miscellaneous collection of writings retrieved from caves near Qumran, at the northwest corner of the Dead Sea, between the years 1947 and 1956. In all, fragments of some 900 manuscripts were found. They were written mostly in Hebrew, with some in Aramaic and a small number in Greek. They date from the last two centuries BCE and the first century C.E.”
Since they were first uncovered quite by chance by a shepherd chasing after one of his errant goats, the scrolls have been controversial and have aroused all sorts of interest beyond the academic arena. One theory that has been floated is that these were works that reflected the thinking of the Essenes, a Jewish sect which had broken off from the mainstream Jewish community in Jerusalem. This monastic sect has seemed to many to be the forerunners of early Christians.
Other writers and scholars have argued that this rather vast “library” may have been spirited away from Jerusalem and hidden to safeguard them from Roman eyes. If they are indeed these types of books, these scholars say the scrolls have far more to do with mainstream Judaism than with some small, albeit fascinating, breakaway sect.
Collins, a professor of Old Testament at Yale University, discusses each of these point of view, plus many more, in his brisk survey of the history and scholarship surrounding these ever-fascinating scrolls and fragments of scrolls.
Jews and Words by Amos Oz and Fania-Oz Salzberger (232 pages, Yale University Press)
Why are you reading these particular words?
Famed novelist Amos Oz and his daughter, lawyer and professor Fania-Oz Salzberger, would say it’s because words — to say nothing of books — are of great central importance to Jews.
The authors explore this special relationship by telling stories and relating the theories of scholars — while also talking together and always arguing spiritedly — about Judaism’s most important names, adages, disputes, books and even witticisms.
Words, say these two who wield them so effortlessly, are what connects our “founding father” Abraham with the Jews of every subsequent generation.
The argument is framed around four major topics: continuity, women, timelessness and individualism. Filled with a humor and tartness long associated with Oz, this is a brief book but one filled with wisdom and insight worth several evenings of your precious time.


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