Reflections on the Print vs. Digital Book Debate

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By Yonatan Gordon

While I had in mind about a week ago to write an article in honor of 24 Tevet–this year being the 200th anniversary since the passing of the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi–the precise nature of this article only became clear on 24 Tevet itself. It was from an unlikely source, a Wall Street Journal article entitled “Don’t Burn Your Books—Print Is Here to Stay.”

It is well known that the Tanya was printed into book form de facto because of manuscript errors planted there by “sundry copyists.” It is also well know that the popularity of the Tanya immediately spread far and wide, selling out the initial print run of 15,000 copies. This essay doesn’t pretend to reconstruct the account. Rather our attempt here is to re-translate it for a new generation of tech savvy individuals.

If we abstract the circumstances surrounding the copying and subsequent printing of the Tanya, we can gain surprising clarity into a debate riveting today’s publishing world: are e-books going to replace print books, or are print books here to stay?

The sweeping sentiment, especially among the younger generation, is that print books have already been assigned their expiration debate. Whether another five, ten or fifteen years, its only a matter of time when the reading world is filled with Kindles, iPads and so forth. That’s what makes this WSJ article so counter-revolutionary. It wasn’t at all obvious in the mindset of today’s publishing world that print would last; but unmistakably it is.

The answers given as to why print is surviving the digital onslaught seem vague. In this article, they mention the “crisply printed, tightly bound book” feel as a reason. Observant Jews know well that e-books can’t be read on Shabbat and Yom Tov; that the parchment of a Torah, Mezuzah or Tefillin can’t be digitized. These are concrete reasons why observant Jews rely on print … but what of the rest of the reading world?


In order to explain the print vs. digital debate, let us go back to our Tanya story. From reading an account of the story, it seems that all things being equal, unbound pamphlets from copyists seemed preferable over a printed and bound book. When something is bound, there is also the risk that it becomes sedentary.

As the Alter Rebbe explains with regard to the first writing down of the Tanya “Because time no longer permits [me] to reply to everyone individually on his particular query, and also because forgetfulness is common. I have therefore recorded all the replies to all the questions, to be preserved as a sign, and to serve as a reminder in everyone’s mind. No longer will one need to press for a private audience, Thus his heart will be firmly secure in G‑d who completes and perfects everything for us.”


Why does the younger generation especially want that books should be digital? If we interpret the motivation, we could say its the drive that written books should be imminently practical. As the Alter Rebbe explains, the hesitation to commit teachings to writing is because “The reader will read it after his own manner and mind, and according to his mental grasp and comprehension at that particular time. Hence, if his intellect and mind are confused and wander about in darkness in the service of G‑d he will find it difficult to see the beneficial light hidden in books, although this light be pleasant to the eyes and therapeutic for the soul.”

Why then did the Alter Rebbe prefer pamphlets over a bound book? My thought while reading this WSJ article is that this same debate is still raging today. The only difference perhaps is that instead of saying pamphlets vs. bound book we say e-book vs. print book. The more bound and collected, the more it seems to be an abstract body of information. So too, a person could have a smartphone with access to millions of books, but unless this information can be transformed into knowledge, then it remains superficial. The debate is not over which to choose, its over which has more perceptible light. Which will ignite the reader’s imagination?


Seemingly, a balance between these two opposites is preferable. We know that the Tanya has been printed in more places than any other book in history. Chabad rabbis make it a point to print Tanyas throughout the world both to purify the air, and encourage more people to learn from this holy book.

Aside from the spiritual effect, printing something anew also shows its relevance. The fact that a public gathering was made to print these Tanyas is similar to what today is called Print-on-Demand (POD). This is technology whereby printers can now print and bind one-book-at-a-time from digital files stored on computers. There is even a portable POD machine called the Espresso Book Machine that serves as a digital kiosk for people to print the books that most interest them.

POD is a good example of something that starts off as digital, but in the end manifests as something physical. Like the original intention of the Tanya, a person who orders and reads a POD book is able to feel like it was custom made for them. Like the Tanya that, even though it is printed, speak to each soul individually; POD books can remind us of this concept as well.

From this discussion, it seems fitting that some ambitious people should want to rent an Espresso Book Machine, put it on an RV with a portable battery, and go printing Tanyas from one city to the next. Not only would these people be printing batches of Tanyas, but each copy would be individually printed for each person in the crowd.

I actually contacted the makers several years ago, and they were interested in working with Chabad on this. It would also make a great news story for local media as this machine is yet not being used in many places. If there is interest, please email me at

Photo Credit: From of a person reading from a Kindle. 


4 thoughts on “Reflections on the Print vs. Digital Book Debate

  1. Pingback: Reflections on the Print vs. Digital Book Debate « Self Publishing

  2. Pingback: Aaron Swartz « Community of Readers

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