Around the Web, English, Technology

Some Notes and Questions on Digitization (Around the Web- September 5, 2011)

The Sunday Book Review of the New York Times ran an article yesterday by Lev Grossman on the place of the e-book in relation to the scroll and codex. Grossman outlines what he sees as the weaknesses in reading from digital books by pointing out its parallels with reading from a scroll:

Trying to jump from place to place in a long document like a novel is painfully awkward on an e-reader, like trying to play the piano with numb fingers. You either creep through the book incrementally, page by page, or leap wildly from point to point and search term to search term. It’s no wonder that the rise of e-reading has revived two words for classical-era reading technologies: scroll and tablet. That’s the kind of reading you do in an e-book.

Having himself authored a book entitled Codex, Grossman prefers reading from a bound product like the codex:

The codex is built for nonlinear reading — not the way a Web surfer does it, aimlessly questing from document to document, but the way a deep reader does it, navigating the network of internal connections that exists within a single rich document like a novel. Indeed, the codex isn’t just another format, it’s the one for which the novel is optimized.

People studying Talmud, back in the day.

Which, naturally, leads one to think- “what about the Talmud?”. On the one hand, the book is almost uniformly studied from its Vilna Edition; on the other, its digitization has enabled unprecedented search capabilities which have furthered its study. To make it only more complicated, it seems as though the Talmud’s “authors”, whoever they may be, intended on an oral transmission. Some of the earliest genizah fragments of the Talmud are parts of scrolls, and although they probably saw codexes in the hands of Eastern Christians, the early disseminators of the Talmud could never foresee innovations such as the Vilna Sha”s, Bar-Ilan, or Ma’agarim. This preamble is just so that I can ask how you learn the Talmud- from printed book or computer screen, and why?

In related news, Mississippi Fred Macdowell has some helpful tips on “searching online in Hebrew with imperfect OCR“.

Finally, Yitz (not Landes) reviews the iMishnah app for iPhone and iPad over at Tzvee’s Talmud Blog. This Yitz doesn’t use iMishnah but is an avid iTalmud user. It’s well worth the money but I’m a little hesitant about iMishnah- it doesn’t promise much more than the free “ובלכתך בדרך” app, profiled here by Richard Hidary.


13 thoughts on “Some Notes and Questions on Digitization (Around the Web- September 5, 2011)

  1. Of course context matters. In a traditional beit midrash, it will always (at least for me) be a Vilna Shas, In the office, I’ll usually work on three levels – make a synopsis in excel which I’ll keep on the screen, make a word document which incorporates the manuscript variants and divides the paragraphs as I see fit – and then print it out, and finally, have a good old trusty well worn Vilna Shas (inherited from my wife’s grandfather who learned in Lublin before the war) open on the desk. I recall a certain Rosh Yeshiva telling me about learning from the Responsa Project: זה כמו ללמוד בגוש – צריכים סווטר

  2. Zohar says:

    Although things are definitely better today, I used to find a lot of interesting things flipping around the library’s card catalog. The author’s other books, books on the topic which might be in a different department, etc. All of this information is available today, but you have to seek it out. In the old days, you could hardly avoid it.

  3. Aryeh Bernstein says:

    I much prefer learning in a book to learning on the computer. I think this is for several reasons: 1) body position in relation to the book is more variable in relation to a book; 2) tiring of eyes (these 2 reasons would probably be narrowed substantially with an ipad instead of a computer); what the blogger wrote about: when I read, i go back, revisit, jump back and check my memory; jot marginal notes linking passages to passages, etc. Whether there is a deep technological difference, or just a difference in my training, I find it much harder to learn in these ways when there isn’t a stable page location for passages. Granted, these are preferences in learning that are not intrinsic to knowledge or learning, but only to the culture of printed learning; oral learners would not have developed these practices. But they are practices I enjoy and value.

    Having said that, I will add that I enjoy and value having multiple ways to interact with a single text, to bring out different approaches to learning it. With Rabbinic texts, for example, I prefer to situate my practice of learning in printed books, but to supplement that with looking for things and checking references on the screen. And as I really learn a sugya, I often like to reformat it in a Word doc, even as I also color code it in my printed gemara.

    • I would contest this point:
      “Granted, these are preferences in learning that are not intrinsic to knowledge or learning, but only to the culture of printed learning; oral learners would not have developed these practices.”
      Where does knowledge end and its acquisition begin?

  4. yaelf says:

    Most of my learning is done in some sort of combination of books and screen…. my laptop has completely invaded the Beit Midrash (can’t resist checking manuscripts or looking up a verse).
    And my academic work is mainly done on-screen because the visual re-arrangement of the text (dividing lines, paragraphs, underlining, switching colors, comparing parallels) is such an essential part of my learning. That being said, I also doodle compulsively, and usually have a “real” book next to me so I can jot down my thoughts and references. I generally like to leave my mark on my Vilna Shas, or any other text/book I study (You should see my midrashey halakha!), and the laptop/ipad just doesn’t satisfy that need.

  5. S. says:

    Not everyone is blessed with a great memory, me being one of them (the unblessed, that is). So while I’m not happy about it, I do allow my computer to function as a second brain.

    • A teacher of ours, Shlomo Naeh, who has studied and published on the art of memory, is convinced that one retains more when learning from a printed source (he even forces us to bring books to class!). While I too enjoy using my computer to find things, remember for me, prepare synopsi, and help me dissect a sugya, I think Prof. Naeh is right- I just remember what I read from a physical book better.

      • S. says:

        He might be right. There’s still a lot to be learned about what computers are doing to our brains, if anything. I’m sure you also retain even more when you sing it out loud rather than read silently.

  6. I think that each medium has its place and that they each compliment each other. I remember when I went to Yeshivat Hazon Ovadiah in order to buy a set of Yalkut Yosef and there was Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef sitting at a table with dozen of seforim around him, along with his open laptop.


    I remember reading somewhere that the location of information on an actual page aids our memory, something that we loss with some digital texts.

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