What is a Book?

By Yonatan Gordon

A most controversial debate is brewing in the book world today. The topic centers not on the content within books, but on the very definition of what a books is. With the success of electronic reading devices such as the Kindle Fire and Nook, we have further reason to try and explain this debate over “what is a book”.

Many great things can be expounded in a classroom, but books suggest something more tangible and “hand held.” Within the book there are three dimensions: Length, Width and Depth or as we will explain the Author (סוֹפֵר), Book (סֵפֶר) and Story (סִיפּוּר).

These three dimensions of the book are first mentioned in the Book of Formation attributed to Abraham. A light-hearted play on this title could take it to allude to the topic of “book form.” Perhaps the contents of this short book authored by the patriarch of the Jewish people can be seen as a forerunner to our heated debate over “what is a book” in the publishing world today.

To publish ideas means to place them into an art-form, transitioning a conceptual innovation into a tangible commodity. By holding the book in our hands we are admitting to the physical effect of the written word. There is now a published work before us with a given form and appearance.

In the Book of Formation we first read how God created reality with three books:

The Author:  God Himself

The Book: The entire expanse of created reality

The Story: The unfolding tales of each life recounted in the Torah and onward

To extrapolate this concept to our present metaphor of books and publishing: An authentic Jewish author connects to readers by means of the reality he has published.

While readers, for their part, take their place in the unfolding story of the author’s reality. Along with being the patriarch of the Jewish people, Abraham was also a good example for what an authentic author should be.

Abraham was a believer and he brought belief in God to many in his generation. Ultimately his readers and followers who cleaved to him did so for the sake of gaining instruction on how to serve God.  Accordingly, the Jewish notion of increasing a fan base, “likes” or “friends,” is for the sake of bringing these students closer to God Himself.

The power of a Jewish sage is his willingness to devote himself selflessly to the needs of his flock. The greatest story ever told so far is the Exodus. In the Torah we read how Moses returned from Midian to Egypt in order to take his people out of bondage. The basic intent of the Exodus was to leave exile in order to serve God and receive the Torah. With regard to our world of publishing, the greatest gift a Jewish author can convey to his readers is the ability to escape real or imaginary boundaries.

While today’s world of publishing is focused on breaking the boundary of the printed book, it’s important to remember that some limitation is both necessary and beneficial. Although Moses took the Jewish people out of limitation, it was for the sake of delivering a set system of laws and instructions in the Torah.

One meaning of the word book (סֵפֶר) in Hebrew is a “border” or “boundary,” (סְפַר ). So while there is some limit intrinsic to what a book is, the role of a good author is to show the infinite potentials within the published work. Moses’ declarative to “choose life” meant that life is given to those who live with the precepts of the Torah; or as another verse proclaims Torah is a “tree of life for those who grasp it”.

Metaphorically speaking, choosing life is like delivering an unlimited and instantly streaming experience. God willing in future installments we will explain how holding onto the Torah is like grasping onto infinity.

“This will be the most important thing I’ve ever done”—Quote attributed to Steve Jobs just before the launch of the iPad on January, 27, 2010.


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