The most striking thing about the opening of Jewish Book Week — London’s biggest book fair — was the relative lack of books. At the opening, on Saturday night, to a packed audience, Simon Sebag-Montefiore led off the presenters with an account of his much feted “Jerusalem, a Biography,” but the smorgasbord of Judaic books that had previously greeted the attendees like a literary bagel spread was notably, and deliberately, thin.
The theme of this year’s event is “bookends,” by which the organizers mean to conjure both an idea of formative books as well as those solid citizens of the bookshelf that provide balance to a row of books. An unfortunate echo of the theme, though, is the “end of books.” And, though the reason for the limited showing of hard copies in the foyer is the increasing ease and thrift of buying books online (Amazon is cheaper after you’ve found a book at JBW), the decreasing number of hard copies is a trend that will continue as Europe follows America, and move increasingly towards eBooks.
But this is no reason for despair. Readers and writers still abound, and publishers and organizers are more than happy to bring them together, with or without the help of different forms of booksellers. A cluster of writers held a salon on the opening night to the delight of the attendees. On the first complete day of presenters the Right Honorable Sir Martin Gilbert, presented his reflections of 50 years of writing with urbane charm; Susanna Heschel, Miri Rubin and David Cesarani discussed the Jewish obsession with Jesus in a clear-minded, informative and refreshingly frank way, and both played to full rooms of appreciative readers.
Presenters have also been asked for their conceptual “bookends” — one book that was passed on to them by a previous generation to profound effect and one book that they would like to pass on to another generation. Tom Segev notes that three of his friends at Hebrew University gave him A.J.P. Taylor’s “English History 1914-1945” (Oxford University Press, 1965), a magisterial work by Sir Martin Gilbert’s advisor. Gilbert began his presentation by saying that Taylor had advised him against going to places where events took place, using archives (“You won’t find anything new there”) or talking to witnesses (“They’ll only remember fantasy”). Gilbert made it clear that, though Taylor had made this modus operandi work for him, he himself believed deeply in all three of those methods.
The internet may be changing the nature of the book and the types of places that are important, but Jewish Book Week 2011 is set to show that books, people and places are of enduring interest, and importance.