How Much Reading Does a Human Being Need?

Book scramble

Rabbi Shalom Carmy

Assistant Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Bible

Shalom CarmyOnline, I can access thousands of Torah books. I can read or confirm a citation in thousands of classic works of literature, philosophy and history. Innumerable scholarly journals, once available only in specialized libraries, appear on my screen with the tap of a few keys. On a good day, one feels like a child let loose in a candy store with an unlimited allowance. What can be more democratic? The only unfairness, it seems, is to the valuable work that is not yet easily obtainable and gets lost or is known, if at all, only through random, often misleading paraphrase.

Nevertheless, the exponential increase in printed words poses a problem for democratic, egalitarian readers. What deserves to be read and how carefully should it be read?

Take an example: I am currently studying R. Yisrael Gustman’s Kuntresei Shiurim on the Talmudic tractate Bava Kamma, which deals with the laws of damages. R. Gustman, the youngest rabbinic judge in 1930s’ Vilna, survived the war, and his books are based on the lectures he gave in Jerusalem decades later. His Bava Kamma is over 400 double-columned folio pages. Unless you are blessed with R. Gustman’s erudition and analytic acuity, his work is best read in small doses, a couple of pages at a time, preferably with pauses to consult, as necessary, the Talmudic, medieval and modern authorities he interprets and argues with. Online libraries make it much easier to call up these sources when they are not at hand.

But the real work requires careful reading, not efficient scrolling. Are the volumes of Kuntresei Shiurim online? If so, I’d be grateful to use them for reference but not for intensive study.

Although the Yeshiva University library catalogue lists hundreds of commentaries on Bava Kamma along with much more scholarship devoted to the topic of damages in Jewish law, few advanced Talmudists would criticize my decision to spend countless hours studying R. Gustman. The elite have endorsed the high and probably enduring quality of his contribution; most of the other volumes I could have picked off the shelf have not met that standard. Those lesser authors also labored mightily, and reading them demands serious concentration. Uninitiated, well-meaning internet browsers would not readily distinguish the best from the mediocre. That’s the problem: the more you can get your hands on, the greater the advantage accruing to the readers who are “plugged in,” that is, those who know what of this vast primary and secondary literature is most worth studying and how to study it and when to close the books and do your own hard thinking.

What is true in Talmud is true for other disciplines I am familiar with: philosophy, history, creative literature, criticism and so forth. Therefore, the explosion in printed material may make it even more urgent for readers to be well-informed and selective about what they choose to read. Such discrimination is a function of education and the thoughtful appropriation of informed, sophisticated opinion. The internet cannot be relied on to do this. To the contrary, it may even encourage the illusion that everything out there is equally trustworthy and valuable.