Book Week - electrifying, but please not electronic

By Gerald Jacobs, March 1, 2012
Derbhle Crotty: a haunting highlight

Derbhle Crotty: a haunting highlight

Will there come a time when the only readily available copies of new books, including all prayer books and even the Bible, will be electronic? Are the People of the Book destined to become the People of the eBook?

For many twitterati and "kindlelach", this is a cyber consummation devoutly to be wished - certainly outside the liturgical sphere. You read a review (online) or somebody recommends (by email or text) a novel or biography, you tap the details into your iPad (shmiPad!) and, within moments, it's there in front of you. No cluttered bookshelves or bulging baggage; no messing around with ignorant bookshop assistants who have never heard of Bernard Shaw, let alone Bernard Malamud.

Such speculations occurred to me on Sunday night at the end of the nine days of literary largesse that was Jewish Book Week 2012. This having been JWB's 60th anniversary - held in a smart, new location - futurology was in the air: how would the next 60 years pan out? What form would JWB 2072 take? Would it be a "virtual" festival, with its thousands of participants - speakers and listeners, booksellers and buyers - all sat at home, staring at screens?

Surely not. For, as the glitterball was being polished in Hollywood in readiness for the 84th Oscar ceremony, the chatter was equally vigorous back in London's Kings Place, north of Kings Cross and St Pancras stations. Punters and performers alike were reflecting not on The Artist, Hugo or Meryl Streep but on The Prague Cemetery, Ulysses or Deborah Lipstadt. Maybe, by 2072, JWB will, like the Oscars, be internationally broadcast - such has been the rate of its ascent under its outgoing director, Geraldine D'Amico - but, again like the Oscars, at its heart will be a live, enthusiastic gathering. Indeed, the Book Week crowd will be even more culturally attuned (and more Jewish!) than the Hollywood horde.

That end-of-week buzz, following David Aaronovitch's closing encounter with Umberto Eco and Jay and Pat Rayner's joint-rocking finale, had been around all week. And from kvetch to kvell it was a thoroughly Jewish occasion. One of the attendants at this shining new venue, used to more sedate, classical music aficionados, was heard to remark to a colleague: "This is much more fun than the concerts".

Though it sounded as if every latecomer to the wooden-floored concert halls was wearing marching boots (maybe next year anyone arriving late should surrender their footwear at the door), the numbered seating was a new experience for JBW devotees. More familiarly, speakers still had to face that opening piece of absurdist theatre without which no Jewish audience event seems complete: "Speak up!" "Ok. [Louder:] Can you hear me now?" "No!"

But, mostly, the audiences lapped it up. From the urbane American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg's sound-bites in dialogue with the BBC's Robin Lustig - "In the 1930s, Jabotinsky said that, while Arabs had an appetite for Palestine, Jews had a hunger for it; now, it's the Palestinians who hunger for the West Bank and the Israelis who have the appetite" - and Alan Yentob prompting Claude Lanzmann to share his memories of how he once shared the favours, and flesh, of Simone de Beauvoir with Jean-Paul Sartre, to historian Bernard Wasserstein's chilling comment about the prayers of the religious Jews of pre-war Europe: "Their God betrayed them."

Perhaps even more startling utterances for the religiously observant came from an assortment of rabbis, including Progressives Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah, who powerfully suggested that Moses's sister Miriam might have been a lesbian, and David Goldberg, who argued that around 90 per cent of Jews "no longer believe in the God of the Bible".

At least as astounding to some were the statements of Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks - in a dynamic session with mathematician Marcus du Sautoy and neuroscientist Daniel Glaser - that he'd "learnt more from atheists than from theists" and that "nobody for centuries" has taken the biblical narrative literally.

But, for me, the stand-out moment came with the staggeringly haunting delivery by Irish actress Derbhle Crotty of Molly Bloom's celebrated monologue from James Joyce's Ulysses. You can view the JBW sessions now online but, for this one, you had to be there. And, for the next 60 years and beyond, faced with a live Book Week or an electronic one, if you want the best experience, do the Jewish thing: choose live.

Last updated: 11:53am, March 1 2012