The Future of Reading (and its Impact on Jewish Law)

by Brian on May 7, 2009

in Jewish Holidays and Culture

I have seen the future of reading and it is not print books or newspapers.

On Wednesday, Amazon unveiled the Kindle DX, a larger version of its popular Kindle eBook reader. The DX’s 9.7-inch screen is two and a half times the size of the original Kindle, making it perfect for reading newspapers, magazines, textbooks, even large format printed material such as cookbooks.

Essentially the height and width of a sheet of paper and 1/3 of an inch thick, the Kindle DX, like its little brother, uses a technology called e-Ink which displays black text on a white background, much like a real newspaper or book. It’s far more readable than an LCD laptop or computer screen monitor (or even an iPhone or iPod Touch). There’s no backlight, meaning you can’t read it in the dark, but you can view it in high sunlight like at the beach.

The new Kindle comes complete with a built-in MP3 player, font size that can be adjusted to soothe tired eyes, and direct access to Wikipedia and The New Oxford American Dictionary. Books and newspapers can be downloaded anywhere wirelessly (in the U.S. at least) within 60 seconds. About the only thing missing is color and video, but hey, this is just version 1.0.

The DX follows on the surprising success of Amazon’s first Kindle which came on the scene a year and a half ago and proved that, after years of over optimistic predictions and false starts, a pent up desire for books that can be read electronically on a paperback-sized portable device truly exists.

Forrester Research says
that 400,000 Kindles have been sold since its Q4 2007 launch. There are now 275,000 titles in the Kindle library, with bestsellers and new releases priced at only $9.99. Late last year, Oprah endorsed the Kindle on her TV show.

Kindle isn’t alone either. New portable newspaper-sized readers are being readied for release later this year from media giants Hearst and News Corp., and from startup Plastic Logic whose device has a touch screen. Apple may release the long awaited tablet-sized version of its popular iPod Touch as early as June.

But what’s important is that electronic book and newspaper readers are going to change the way we consume the written word. In the last year alone, sales of eBooks have quadrupled. Notwithstanding the Luddites who will always insist a print book or newspaper is an inherently superior reading experience, it’s my firm conviction that within 10 years – 20 years tops – most people will be reading on portable digital devices and it will be nearly impossible to buy anything in print.

And why not? You can load on thousands of books; newspapers, blogs and websites can be updated in real time; and you’re helping the planet to boot by cutting down fewer trees. Plus think about the poor college student who has to lug around a backpack full of heavy – and ridiculously expensive – textbooks. All that will be gone.

So, why am I writing about all this tech goodness on the This Normal Life blog? Because the future of reading will also fundamentally change halacha – Jewish law.

Think about it – what happens when most reading goes electronic? It will no longer be permissible for observant Jews to kick back on the couch with a good eBook or eNewspaper on Shabbat and holidays since using electrical devices on those days is forbidden. I don’t know about you, but for me, that’s the main day of the week I have to catch up on the week’s events or to curl up with a favorite novel.

Now, it’s possible that a number of frum Jewish print houses will crop up and continue to publish newspapers and books “the old fashioned way.” But that market would be necessarily small and would inevitably be limited to Torah-centric content. If you want to learn a page of gemara or peruse HaModia, sure go ahead.

But the modern Orthodox want to read the same newspapers and the same books the rest of the Jewish community does. Will the Jerusalem Post come out with a special print edition on weekends? Maybe. How about Haaretz? No way. And what about outside of Israel? Once The New York Times goes all digital, there’s no turning back.

It’s already happening. The Times has been on the Amazon Kindle platform since the beginning. The paper now has 10,000 paid subscribers. Doing the math, if the electronic Times costs $13.99 a month, that would mean the Times’ Kindle edition is generating in the neighborhood of $1.4 million a year total. With the new Kindle DX, those numbers should soar.

Indeed, the large format electronic reader is being touted by some as a potential remedy for the woes of the beleaguered newspaper industry. An analysis by Nicholas Carson in Silicon Valley Insider suggested that even if The New York Times bought every one of its subscribers a Kindle, by killing its print run, it would still come out ahead by some $346 million.

Then there’s the Christian Science Monitor which announced last year that it was ceasing publication of a print edition entirely except on the weekend, encouraging readers to go online. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer went all digital last month. The Rocky Mountain News in Denver shut down entirely.

“We’re clearly now seeing a path to the end of the printed daily newspaper – a trend that is escalating much faster than we had anticipated,” commented Jeffrey I. Cole, director of USC’s Center for the Digital Future, in a report released this week.

This is not the first time we’ve seen a transition that outpaced all expectations, of course. When CDs first came out, purists argued that the sound on LPs was far better. Today, other than a few specialty stores, where can you buy a vinyl record? Now CDs are the also-rans with MP3s and iPods taking their place at an even faster clip. I recently ordered a terabyte hard disk so I could convert all my old CDs and stream them over our wireless home network.

I think the only answer to the Shabbat and holiday reading conundrum is that observant Jews will have no choice but to use the new fangled eReaders. At first, this may be clandestine. But when other forms of reading no longer exist, there will be a clamor amongst the religious public that will force more progressive rabbis to deal with the changes.

That might be in the form of alternative devices created by organizations like the Tzomet Institute that builds electronic devices that are kosher for Shabbat-observant soldiers, doctors, and other professionals in need. The organization’s Shomer Shabbat telephone, for example, allows dialing in an indirect way – an electronic eye scans the phone buttons every two seconds. If one has been pressed, the eye activates the phone’s dialing system.

Could a similar indirect paging system be employed on a Kindle?

But it might also be that the whole concept of using electricity on Shabbat and holidays gets thrown topsy turvy. The Jewish Worker blog posted a fascinating article outlining the origins of the prohibition on using electricity on Shabbat and holidays. The Daat website goes into even greater detail. As it turns out, there’s no one single reason.

One authority says that completion of a circuit creates sparks and is thus similar to the biblical prohibition of kindling a fire. Another explains that it is prohibited because it is a form of building. There is also the opinion that using electricity is analogous to creating something new, another no no.

When these explanations are applied to turning on an incandescent light bulb, which involves heating a metal filament until it glows, there is general agreement among the poskim that this is a prohibition from the Torah. Turning the light off, however, is less clear. And using a fluorescent light, which does not heat a filament at all, is considered by some to be entirely permissible.

When it comes to electricity used for appliances rather than lights, the responsa are much cloudier, to the point where Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach concludes in his Minchat Shlomo that electrical appliances may actually be permitted on Shabbat and holidays. He writes:

“In my opinion there is no prohibition [to use electricity] on Shabbat or Yom Tov…unless the electricity causes a prohibited act like cooking or starting a flame…However, I am afraid that the masses will err and turn on incandescent lights on Shabbat, and thus I do not permit electricity absent great need.”

“Great need,” however, may be coming sooner than the rabbis expected. Is using an electronic book reader akin to switching on an incandescent bulb? How about an e-Ink screen which displays black pixels on a white background without a back light? Will the Rabbinic authorities be forced to re-open the discussion when modern observant Jews demand it?

I for one am looking forward to the year 2029 when I can read my Kindle-delivered newspaper over a cup of coffee after Shabbat morning Kiddush and later curl up with a good eBook in bed.

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: