The Three Dimensions of the Book

paper book trim

Photo Credit: papercutbindery.blogspot.com

By Yonatan Gordon

Those who have followed some of our essays in the past, know that we like to relate our discussions to science. For reasons which we will not now go into, in some ways, scientific metaphors are the best way to explain the sort of topics we bring on Community of Readers.

In our previous entry, we highlighted the most polarized debate in book publishing today (for another article on print vs. digital, please read here). Our task now then is to find a comparable debate in science. For those who haven’t yet guessed it, the scientific debate of choice is creationism vs. evolution.

There is much to say about this topic, and indeed, scores of books and articles have been written on it. But the most important thing that we would like to bring is that, according to Kabbalah and Chassidut, these two perspectives need not be mutually exclusive. For sure, we are including God in every aspect of the discussion. That goes without question! But our motivation is always to drill down to the core of the concepts being discussed. Why is one group of people naturally disposed to creationism, and another evolution?

Wisdom and Understanding

According to Kabbalah, these two approaches can be viewed as relating to Chochmah (Wisdom) and Binah (Understanding) respectively. While Chochmah and Binah are the first two conscious sefirot of the soul, they also represent masculine and feminine tendencies.

The Chochmah person is someone who is aware that the universe is continuously being created ex nihilo, something from nothing. Indeed, the Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that instead of a one time act, God is recreating the universe anew at every moment.

The Binah person, like the mother who carries a child for nine months, views the act of creation as an evolutionary process. The universe was also born (perhaps at the Big Bang), and is now going through a maturing process. While the Binah approach doesn’t contradict Chochmah, the awareness at this level is more rooted in the progress or expansion within the natural world itself.

The important distinction here though, is that the Chochmah-oriented person, who seems predisposed to a creationistic mentality, doesn’t need to negate the more evolutionary aspects of creation. Instead, Chochmah and Binah in Kabbalah are a pair or couple, that give birth Da’at (knowledge, consciousness or perception) in the soul. The debate is one over knowledge. Who is more knowledgeable, the creationist or evolutionist? The answer is potentially both.

Now Chochmah is right and Binah is left, which also fits well with the political dispositions of our debate. For starters, as we know, most creationists seem to be on the right politically, and evolutionists on the left. The distinction we are making now is that belief in God should be an essential part of both camps. Just that the right is taking a more masculine approach to life, and the left a more feminine.

Book Form

How does this all relate back to our world of book publishing?

In our very first article on Community of Readers, we mentioned that The Book of Formation (Sefer Yetzirah, the first book on Kabbalah attributed to Abraham), begins with the statement that, “God created the world with three books: an author, a book, and a story.” We explained how, metaphorically speaking, this means that God created the world with three aspects (or dimensions) of the book.

As we mentioned in that article, this teaching serves as a lesson for why the form of book (i.e. print or digital) is so important. Not only does The Book of Formation begin with the above statement, but the actual title of the book, Sefer Yetzirah, could be playfully translated to mean “book form” as well!

So who are the creationists and evolutionists in the book industry? There are those who want to verily hold onto the “three dimensions of the book,” or the “length, width and depth” aspects of this printed book that they have in their hands. These are the creationists of the book industry because the print book reader, is more interested in engaging reality with a continual sense of newness, then they are about the evolution of the word “book.”

Then there are those who go straight for the name, these are the digital minded readers, who are seeking to remake the definition of the word “book” itself. Instead of a bound collection of a few hundred pages, they would like to see content swim free across the open seas.

The reason print-minded readers relate to creationists, is also because these readers favor a more naturally correct version of the world. This is similar to the publisher who thinks they are doing a good job of bringing good authors to readers around the world. When the system is working properly, then if given the choice, they say it is better to rely on traditional publishers (i.e. the planets of our conceptual book universe) than more modern methods.

But the digital-minded reader answers that publishers are not doing a good job of promoting worthwhile content. Not only that, they say that print books are not as practical or useful as Ebooks. Instead of storing collections on the shelf, they want something that can be searched through, hyperlinked, and embedded with videos and other supplementary content. They want to be able to make comments to the text, and have their friends or classmates see it. This is why they proclaim that digital books are simply an improved version of the book.

The reason this is an evolutionist or leftist mindset is because of the desire to progress forward from one version of something to the next. Like the expansion of the universe from the beginning of creation, or the development of the print book from Gutenberg till today, the evolutionist views everything as an unfolding process.

But as we explained in our original article on the subject, these leftist tendencies need not end with all books going digital. While the left can inspire us to move forward, as we explained in our “Ten-Fold Model for Educating and Engaging Teens,” the end result of many lefts is a right. What this means for us is that although viewing books as something digital is positive, ultimately this digital mindset is best applied to printed books themselves.

The best scenario is when both approaches inter-include within each other; the creationist who appreciates the “digital” aspect of print books, and the evolutionist who appreciates the “print” aspect of digital books.

Social Textbooks

The challenge now is how to take a print book, and turn it social without making it digital. Remember that digital things don’t convey boundaries that are as clear as print books. Programs that simply put textbooks online, and expect students to annotate these sites, are facing an uphill battle.

The reason for this is that the tangibility aspect of the print book has both conceptual and physical weight to it. As with Einstein’s general theory of relativity, the gravitational pull of good physical books, can center the whole class discussion (for more about the gravity of books, read here).

The best role for digital-minded readers then is to play the role of content activists. In order to help change the book, and the book publishing industry for the better, their first suggestion is to deconstruct our notion of what we think a “book” is. Only once the boundaries have been stripped away, can a healthy new book ecosystem develop.

The first consideration of course, for both camps, is that worthwhile content get into the hands of the readers who need it most.

Book Ecosystem

Now we can go back to the three dimensions of the book mentioned in The Book of Formation. Once again, they are “author (סוֹפֵר) , a book (סֵפֶר ), and a story (סִיפּוּר ). In Kabbalah, these three correspond to the three intellectual sefirot mentioned above: Author to Chochmah (Wisdom), Book to Binah (Understanding), and Story to Da’at.

Naturally, the entire book world is driven by the wisdom coming out of authors. This also relates to any approach that emphasizes the intellectual and creative aspects of the works themselves.

Understanding relates to the form of the book itself. Now that an author has ideas, in what form will he publish his thoughts? This stage views the book simply as the medium, to connect authors with their readers.

Knowledge is what engages the readers, to the story that the author is trying trying to convey.

An author sits down to write a book because he has a story to tell. So it is the story that is binds the author with the book he is producing. Similarly, knowledge is the binding connection between a man and wife, as in the verse, “And Adam knew his wife, Eve.” But, knowledge is not only the sefirah that (more than any other) unites the masculine and feminine, it is also the product of every such successful union.

For this reason, just as the product of a physical marriage between a man and a woman is offspring, the formation of a reading community could be seen as the product of a properly written and published book.

In part one, we spoke about “Authors, Publishers and Readers” not “Authors, Books and Stories,” but both groups relate to one another. Whereas publishers are most concerned with the form of the book, readers are most connected by the stories that the authors tell.

Book Borders

There is something else that we mentioned in our first article. One meaning of the word book (סֵפֶר) in Hebrew is a “border” or “boundary,” (סְפַר ). 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. Good authors are able to convey something unlimited, even within the bounded pages of the printed book.

This also explains why print books will endure. Although the left mindset is one of expansion, all creativity needs a box to at least think out of (for more on the secret of bounded creativity, please read here).

When a system of laws and commandments are given, it is only in order to complete the liberation process. This was the case at the giving of the Torah, where the mitzvot were delivered in order to completion the liberation from slavery in Egypt. So too, while books have unlimited potentials, too much expansion simply leads to an assimilation among the millions of other books out there.

To be continued…

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