Acting as if the Book Were Important

Hebrew Book Week opens today throughout the country as a sort of annual ritual in which we remind ourselves that we are the People of the Book.

Hebrew Book Week opens today throughout the country as a sort of annual ritual in which we remind ourselves that we are the People of the Book. Originally, it was a Zionist cultural idea, a Hebrew Book Week with emphasis on the Hebrew that still needed encouragement and consolidation in an immigrant society. In recent years, however, Hebrew Book Week has turned into an event that is all about marketing. Although everyone declares that the culture of Hebrew literature is all-important, everyone is also paying careful attention to the screeches of credit card presses issuing receipt after receipt.

But there is no reason to complain. The Hebrew book is a product, too, which if not sold will delay the publication of another book. What is at times exasperating is the hypocrisy that attends the act. As if it were degrading to sell and market books and to stoop so low. As if a Hebrew book deserves better treatment. On the contrary, if the publishers think a Hebrew book deserves cultural respect, they should act as such all year long: They ought to be scrupulous about quality and good taste and proofreading and translation. In fact, Hebrew Book Week is a commercial opportunity - mass exposure of what is hidden in the warehouse, tempting discounts and all the rest.

If there is any cultural significance to Hebrew Book Week, it lies in the public relations aspect: It is an opportunity - one that is entirely artificial and fabricated, but one with tradition, all the same - to deal for a week (which for commercial reasons lasts 10 days, in order to include two Saturday nights) in that thing that we call a book. Because of Hebrew Book Week, there is a chance that books will be the subject of the news section, and maybe even get prime-time exposure on TV. Everyone will act as if the book is an important matter. Seemingly a product that should have become extinct because of television and the Internet, but actually a cultural phenomenon that behaves as if it still has a long life ahead of it.

Hebrew Book Week is also the era of surveys. Most of them are held among the same 500 respondents from all of the right socio-demographic cross sections. And as they do every year, they find that women read more than men, and the more educated and wealthy the respondents, the more they read. Anyone surprised?

The more interesting finding - since it is at least based on concrete fact - is about the number of books published in Israel. There is a factual base here, because every publisher is obliged by law to deposit two copies of every new book in the National Library. Although it is difficult to enforce the law, it seems publishers comply.

According to statistics compiled by the National Library, 5,183 books were published in Hebrew last year (89 percent of them were originally written in Hebrew, the rest were translated). About 10 percent of these books are publications of government branches, some of which cannot be considered "books." Therefore, for the past 15 years or so, only about 4,500 books have been published annually in Israel - a magical number of sorts, which remains constant despite all the vicissitudes of time.

But what is no less interesting is the data accompanying this dry statistic: About 21 percent of all books published last year in Hebrew were issued by and for the religious and ultra-Orthodox sectors. This reflects the quantitative weight of this public in the population, although these books do not come to the attention of the public at large throughout the year.

The last finding of these statistics is truly sad - providing it is based on fact (assuming that Arabic publishers comply with the Books Law). Based on the records of the National Library, in 2004 there were only 62 new titles in Arabic, representing 1 percent of the total (there were 114 new titles in Russian, and 616 in English). The previous year, the number was 103. Although this is a matter for Arab Book Week, a book, in any language, is still a book.

A happy Hebrew Book Week to all. If I were you, I would invest in a Hebrew book, because the expense is relatively small, and the return is incalculable. It may not be a realizable asset, but it an investment with an ever-lasting effect.