Chakira solicits and reviews books. We don’t receive all the books we ask for and we don’t always review all the ones receive. This seems pretty consistent with norms for other blogs in philosophy (Leiter Reports) and the Jewish blogosphere (hirhurim). But is it worth it? Should publishers send review copies to bloggers?
Obviously, I think they should. Partially, this stance derives from self interest. My reasoning, however, goes beyond bibliophilia and bypasses the normal reasons you might give a review copy to a blogger.
To rehearse the hackneyed reasons: social media is changing everything, paradigms are shifting and bloggers are new influencers. Whatever. To me, any talk of social media probably amounts to jargon generated by jargon peddlers. I’m not going to go there.
Instead, I think there’s an alignment of incentives between bloggers and authors and publishers that’s neglected. Furthermore, there’s a unique aspect of the medium that allows a middle-level discussion. Finally, I want to discuss a few unique aspects of Jewish blogging.
Blogs may have plateaued. It might be true that a facebook post or tweet now exposes more eyeballs. For the books we are discussing, thats just irrelevant. The reviews we’re running this summer/fall are about academic treatises or collections of articles in either Jewish studies or Philosophy. Try tweeting the complexities of books we’ve looked at before (Deep History and the Brain, Scandal of Kabbalah). Moshe de Leon said that everyone needs some mazal “even a Torah scroll in the ark.” We could add, even a book on amazon or an article on JStor.
But what you need as an author isn’t just a drive by tweet. Tyler Cowen has a one man genre of one liners about books in econ, history, philosophy etc. Here’s an example:
1. Charles Rosen, Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature. Rosen has mastered pianism, writing, and learning. The best parts, such as on Chopin or Schumann, are stunningly good.
2. Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac, Pax Ethnica: Where and How Diversity Succeeds. Some parts of the world make cross-ethnic collaboration work. I would prefer more comparative analysis with the regions where diversity does not work so well, but this is an interesting book with historical substance.
3. Navi Radjou, Jaideep Prabhu, and Simone Ahuja, Jugaad Innovation: Think Frugal, Be Flexible, Generate Breakthrough Growth. Full of cliches, but thoey do not totally drown out the substance. I have been wanting a book on this topic, namely why the poor are (sometimes) more innovative, illustrated through India.
4. Alonso Cueto, The Blue Hour. Just translated from Spanish, this book made a big splash in Peru. It turns on a family story, the history of the Shining Path, and a man’s obsession with a woman. I have yet to see major reviews (here is one summary), but for my taste it is one of the best novels of the year. The UK has paper copies, right now US has only Kindle, possibly a paper edition in July.
This is all about affiliation and social capital. In that context, if we can have a one liner about a book, we’ve dispensed with it. Books as props for cocktail party conversations (where cocktail party probably means gchat).
The truth is, name dropping the people Chakira discusses (BOOM! Yochanan Petrovsky Shtern) doesn’t pack as much oomph as you’d like. If someone knows about Professor Shtern, they’ve probably read his article, and if not, then not. Its not this allusive thing where you say you’re in the secret club (“Derrida discusses this in White Mythology”) and signal taste in wider areas. I’m not signalling my affinity across a supposed disciplinary chasm. I’m just part of the same group of Jewish academicy people as you and you probably met me last week.
So how do you create new publics? How do you stop exchanging social capital and start creating it? The essayistic format I pursue here might be one answer. I try to engage with arguments in a book or article and get into (and out of them) cogently, while connecting them to wider philosophical concerns and writing interestingly. Whatever the merits of my own efforts in this regard, I think the blog is a middle step that can bring people into the conversation and still introduce it with integrity. Its not tweeting. Its not paraphrasing. Its not even a traditional book review (NDPR). Its just discussing the stuff in the book.
Blogs offer a unique alignment of incentives with publishers and authors. Simply put: you want to promote your book. I want to promote my blog. Your book is on my blog. At the very least, I’m going to push a discussion of your book for you. If this seems nebulous, think of it in terms of our vast, developing system of distributed, hidden, crowdsourced (eg non-compensated) labor such as internships and amazon mechanical turk. I’m doing some small task for you for almost no cost. Certainly that can be translated into some banal neologism.
In a specifically Jewish context, there’s a great need to reach out to our Haredi brothers and sisters and make them more Jewishly literate and thoughtful. In a recent response to Jewish Review of Books, Leon Wieseltier thoughtfully discusses this issue, chiding a woman for her lack of Jewish knowledge.
a Jewish woman, a woman who takes pride in her Jewishness, knows no Hebrew, then she has only herself to blame. It can only be because she does not wish to know Hebrew, and believes that as a Jew she can do without it. Misogyny, religious or secular, is no longer what stands in her way. Goldsmith now excludes herself with the memory of exclusion. This is a chosen exclusion.
Like many American Jews, Goldsmith is very charitable about her Jewish shortcomings. And so she writes, in her second unforgettable sentence: “Admittedly Judaism lite, but mine such as it is.” I wonder if she is so blithe and self-forgiving about her other passions and obligations. Against such relaxation, I would remind her of the following. This deep and beautiful tradition of ours has made it all the way to us after a journey of over two thousand years. It was not inevitable that this would be so. It was an agonizing journey. Many forces tried to prevent the tradition from surviving this far, or at all. But the persecutions of the Jews did not prevail against the preservationist genius of the Jews. They preserved their tradition because they prized it, not because they were persecuted. We are the custodians of what they, our ancestors, recent and ancient, preserved. We hold it in trust for those who will come after us. We claim to revere it, and to be its beneficiaries. So by what right, by what arrogance and ingratitude, do we condemn large portions of it, with our ignorance and our indifference, to oblivion? The Jewish tradition, the Jewish God too, is not owed blind obedience, even according to some canonical accounts of Jewish faith: Over the centuries many elements of the tradition have been rejected, or made obsolete by internally justified reform. But you cannot reject or reform what you do not know. Dissent must be literate for it to have a strong claim on the inherited ways. Otherwise it is just glibness or scorn. The stubborn historical truth is that the primary instrument of Jewish preservation and Jewish development has been Jewish knowledge, attended (but not always) by Jewish practice….I would not boast about it.
While we don’t know whether Wieseltier’s interlocutor is Orthodox, we can bet that he includes the Orthodox is his pungent remarks about “the memory of exclusion.” Channelling Mendellsohn and other great maskilim, Wieseltier makes no bones about the astounding Jewish illteracy of folks who, living as they do in a free society, can cast off the shackles of superstition and engage in the Jewish tradition. In the age of blogs, there’s nothing but a “memory of exclusion” holding back our Haredi cousins from exploring their heritage. When a card carrying Haredi like Hirshel Tzig discusses a bombshell history of Hasidism by David Assaf, he’s doing away with that memory of exclusion and creating a new public. Even as he tells us, tongue in cheek that “in the Hebrew version you need to be somewhat of a learned person to understand and form an opinion…but now anybody can read it, Jews and non-Jews alike, and that can’t be good for the Jews,” Hirshel cleverly promotes the book (Tuvia’s is selling it!) and facilitates an animated in house discussion of its contents.
The maskilim traditionally circulated alim letrufah. These were samples of forthcoming works to attract subscribers. My blog is a post-facto version of this. While we might’ve disaggregated the author from the person marketing the thing, for books like the ones I look at, its not just sales. Its a cultural intermediary between restricted and less knowledgeable Jewish worlds and better educated Jewish worlds. When people come up to you in Boro Park asking about James Kugel or Marc Shapiro, they probably got there because of blogs.
“Dissent must be literate for it to have a strong claim on the inherited ways,” Wieseltier reminds us. Literacy isn’t just R Chaims or Artscroll Bava Metziah (although both are valuable). Literacy includes the rich corpus of Jewish philosophy and mysticism I discuss. And it presupposes the conceptual framework of (post-Kantian) modernity I take for granted and sometimes stick up for.
I hope my neo-Maskilic vision isn’t hyperbolic or inflated. Maybe it applies to other blogs that are better than mine. Regardless, the marketing and cultural intermediary functions do need new tools to help them flourish. While I’m happy to post whatever articles (or books) I can for free, the truth is that expecting to sell a book from a blog post is unrealistic. I wish there were some way to link to (and maybe sell) a kindle single or a sample of a book for a lower price. Both philosophers and Jews have a lot of commitments. The concept of alim letrufah means making it easy to liberate oneself not only from self imposed ignorance, but from ill advised book purchases.