Q&A With Leon Wieseltier

By | Jul 01, 2015
Arts & Culture, Latest
Leon Wieseltier answering questions

At the annual conference of the Association of Jewish Libraries on June 21, Moment editor Nadine Epstein sat down with Leon Wieseltier, the longtime New Republic literary editor who is now the Isaiah Berlin Senior Fellow in Culture and Policy at the Brookings Institution and a contributing editor at The Atlantic. In their keynote conversation, Wieseltier discusses Jewish literature, Israel, digitization, freedom of expression and the pleasures of being insulted.

NADINE EPSTEIN: Thank you so much. I love libraries and I love librarians and I’m so glad to be here…. You are, too?

[Audience laughter]

LEON WIESELTIER: Oh, I — yes. I just wanted to say, I’m not known for pandering, but I really do admire you people. I’m a Jewish scholar by training. A lot of my Jewish education took place in the bowels of Widener Library many decades ago. There came a point — they used to assign carrells to graduate students near the relevant books, and of course I was assigned a carrell near the, in the middle of the Judaica section. And I have to tell you, the seductions of those shelves, the distractions of browsing, became so spectacular and my work was suffering so badly that I actually got permission and they transferred me to the Chinese collection.

[Audience laughter]

WIESELTIER: Because I simply couldn’t keep my hands off those shelves. As far as I’m concerned, you are the people who are the guardians of the Jewish people’s crown jewels. We don’t have — we didn’t raise stone monuments, or at least not any meaningful ones that survived. What we have, our monuments, our crown jewels, are our books, are our texts. And the people who choose to preserve them, to curate them, to guard them, to make them available are — you are, as far as I’m concerned, in the forefront not just of the struggle for Jewish knowledge but also the struggle for Jewish continuity, because all the new technology in the world is not going to make textual competence obsolete for Jews. And so I’m very grateful to you for asking me and I’m very happy to be here.

[Audience claps]

EPSTEIN: So, what’s the first library that you remember?

WIESELTIER: The first library that mattered to me was the library in a place called the Yeshivah of Flatbush high school in Brooklyn, New York.

[Audience claps]

W: Well, those of yKeynote2ou who are clapping I hope are old enough to remember the good old days when… some of you may remember Tchernichovsky’s poem Lenochach Pesel Apollo — remember when he goes to the statue of Apollo and he asks, he offers his apologies, he says, “I am the first of those who will return to you.” And he apologizes that the Jews, he said, “They bound you in their tefillin,” and I was taught that poem, wearing a woven yarmulke, by a religious Jew with a beard. Now, this doesn’t happen anymore, that’s finished. I have a book in my library that for me is a talisman of what that sort of, I guess it was, you’d call it Orthodox Judaism used to be. It’s a small Livre de Poche edition of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal, and on the cover is one of Manet’s most brazen full-frontal nudes, and you open the book and it says, “Property of the Joel Braverman High School of the Yeshivah of Flatbush.”

[Audience laughter]

W: And that, as far as I’m concerned, may as well be from the second temple period. But that was the first library.

E: Well, what kind of books spoke to you when you were young, in addition to that book?

W: Well, um, I always, I don’t know when, but at a very early age I decided that the most beautiful word in the English language was ‘philosophy.’ And so I began to devour — I had teachers, again, at Flatbush High School, especially one, who, you know, fed my habit. But I was very lucky, I was a very gifted student and when you’re young, being a student is basically all that society asks of you. So I was very fortunate. All I ever wanted to do was marinate myself in books.

E: Well, was there, like, a couple favorite books when you were a youngster in Flatbush —

W: Well, I loved historical novels, I couldn’t get enough of Dumas and Sabatini and Haggard. I’m trying very hard to sell some of this to my 13-year-old son with mixed results. Though he did like the movie of Captain Blood with Errol Flynn enormously. And then there were — I was always in love with the Hebrew language from the very beginning, always, in any of its forms. You know, secular forms, religious forms, the term that is larger than both secular and religious for me is Hebrew. And I was speaking Hebrew, thankfully, at a very young age.

E: And you were reading Hebrew also?

W: I was reading Hebrew.

E: So, what were you reading?

W: I almost won the National Bible Contest in 1965, and the reason I mention that is because this is one of the great moments in my life. The person who asked the last question was David Ben-Gurion. Some of you will recall the sacred address 515 Park Avenue, which was the Jewish Agency building in New York. And he actually came to ask the last question of myself and a girl from Los Angeles who remembered sooner than I did the 12 stones of the Hoshen [breastplate worn by the high priest] in the proper order…. I mean, I screwed up.

E: Were you a little nervous?

W: I was immensely nervous, but I met Ben-Gurion. I mean, it was one of those —

E: What was he like?

W: He was tiny, and he was magical, because it was Ben — you know. I’m the luckiest Jew who was ever born, I have to tell you, for many, many reasons. The absolute luckiest. And when I was young, not only did I meet Ben-Gurion, but we would go up to Swan Lake in the Catskills to a bungalow colony every summer, and one of the families in the bungalows next to us was the family of Tuvia Bielski, who was one of the great partisan heroes. And when I was a boy, I’d go to the pool, and basically I saw Judah Maccabee lounging around in his gotchkes. I’m telling you, it was a very, very rich induction into our tradition.

E: So, how has the digital age— I know you care about this a lot — impacted people’s reading and thinking habits? Because obviously you had this great experience as a kid. And, are other people today, can they have that same experience?

W: I think it’s possible to have the experience on the Kindle, in the sense that you can put the same four paragraphs on anything and they’re the same four paragraphs. You can write them in charcoal on stone, you can read them in an 18th century book, you can read them on a Kindle. What worries me is not just the fate of books, what worries me more is the fate of attention. I think this technology is the most sustained assault on human attention ever devised. And I think that the Jewish tradition to an extraordinary degree is premised on sustained attention. That’s partly because we’re a culture of study, but as you know, the temporality of reading is slow. And so in a culture in which everything is being insanely accelerated, reading will either be changed, and in some ways it is — you may know that e-mail is now regarded by young people as too slow.

E: Yep. Gotta text.

W: You know, I remember when I was in graduate school, someone came to install a phone, up in Cambridge, and as he was installing it, he said to me, “Would you like, you know, for another five bucks, we can program it so that instead of dialing a whole number, which means seven buttons, we can do it so that you can just press one button.” And I looked at him and I said, “You know, I’m not gonna live forever, but I’m gonna live long enough. I have time for all seven buttons.”

[Audience laughter]

W: And I think that the acceleration of everything by this technology, the assault, the fragmentation of attention — that’s what worries me the most.

E: Does it have something to do with thinking? Like in the Yeshiva, you learned how to think in a certain way, and are we losing the ability to think?

W: It depends what kind of thinking. We’re now, everyone is becoming a genius at instrumental thinking, at practical thinking, at technical thinking. The most important question you can ask about anything in this country right now is not is it true or false, or good or evil, but how does it work? That’s all anybody ever wants to know. And if you really want to impress people you wait until someone explains how it works and then you say, ‘No, no, no, no, this is how it really works.’ And then you’re a genius. But there is now where we are living under the domination of instrumental and technical thinking, which is useful where it’s useful. In other words, there are realms in which it’s entirely appropriate, but the kind of slow, sustained attention — you know, in the Renaissance there was an Italian art theorist, an aesthetician, who developed this concept that he called ‘creative idleness.’ In other words, every realm has its own pace and its own temporality, but we’re allowing the pace of one realm to infiltrate, to seep into and to dominate all the realms, and that worries me, that worries me a lot.

E: So, how about Hebrew? How important is it for us to be able to read in Hebrew today?

W: I think that the American Jewish community is the most disgraceful community that ever existed in the diaspora because it is the first major community that genuinely thinks that it can receive, develop and transmit the Jewish tradition not in a Jewish language. The decision of American Jews to dispense with the Jewish language, our historians and our children in my view will regard as a crime. As a crime. Now, that doesn’t mean that Jews didn’t have many languages — they always did. That doesn’t mean that Jews didn’t always speak the host language — they often did. One of the reasons that so much Rashi is in French is because the people who read Rashi spoke French.

E: He spoke French also, right?

W: Of course, of course. That’s not the issue. The issue is that in various other times — and by the way, rabbis always complained about the level of literacy, but the level of literacy about which they complained would be an embarrassment of riches for us. I mean, American Jews are illiterate. They are illiterate, and they’re happily illiterate. And I don’t know what to do about it. I have to tell you, I went around for 15 or 20 years with a fire and brimstone speech that I would give to any room of American Jews I could find about Hebrew. And then I realized that it was hopeless for two reasons: One, because the light bulb didn’t want to change, but also because I was trying very hard to make them feel bad, and I discovered that it’s actually impossible to make Jews feel bad, because when they feel bad, they feel good about it.

[Audience laughter]

W: And so I never found an Archimedean point outside this little system of kind of self-love and self-congratulation to get them actually — I mean, it was very, very frustrating, and I think that more of our tradition for this reason is slipping through our fingers in our conditions of security and prosperity than we ever lost in times of oppression and poverty. It’s quite shocking to me.

E: So, is Israeli literature more important to read than American Jewish literature at this point? And if so, how can people read it because they don’t speak Hebrew?

W: Well, if they don’t speak Hebrew they can’t read it. Look, as far as I’m concerned, I’ll take anything read in Hebrew. Anything. I mean, Das Kapital, I don’t care what. Anything read in Hebrew, to me, would be a breakthrough. The day that Haaretz unveiled its English website, my heart was broken, because I thought to myself — that does it, that does it, because now American Jews can pretend to be insiders in Israeli culture and politics without the language. And that’s what they do. And we have a language — we have many languages, but Hebrew is certainly the primary and original Jewish language, and most Judaism takes place in it. And I don’t see any surrogate for it or any way around it. I really don’t.

E: So, Jewish-themed books abound right now, so does that mean that the state Jewish literature is healthy, or maybe it’s not so healthy?

W: It depends. Look, I mean, I think that Jews have always — translation was always one of the primary genres of Jewish intellectual life, because none of us, most of European Jewry in the Middle Ages didn’t read The Guide of the Perplexed in Judeo-Arabic. They read it in the Hebrew translation. So I’ve got nothing against translation and I don’t want Jews to be locked out of their treasures and so on. It’s not about just authenticity. When you ask about Jewish literature, that raises the question of, what is Jewish literature, you know? Is Philip Roth Jewish literature? Well, yes and no. Everyone thinks that Philip Roth is basically most of what you need to be an American Jew, maybe a little Seinfeld. And for me, it’s a sociological and psychologically interesting expression of a certain period in American Jewish life. The idea that it belongs in the canon of Jewish literature with all the books that American Jews no longer read is not obvious to me. I mean, this is true of a lot of such things. Saul Bellow used to insist that he was not a Jewish writer, and I always respected that, in a way, I knew just what he meant. Of course he was a Jewish writer, I mean, he’s got verses from Tehillim [Psalms] in Herzog, I mean, of course he was a Jewish writer. But he was not a Jewish writer in that he didn’t want to be mistaken for the Jewish canon, for the main line of Jewish literature. So, in America right now, it’s a free country, American Jews are a very noisy, articulate people. They have a lot to say. There’s a lot of Jewish expression.

E: What are your favorite Jewish books right now, what do you consider to be — give me three.

W: Oh, I can’t do that.

E: You can’t choose three?

W: No, I’m very bad at that. There are too many Jewish books without which I can’t imagine my Jewish life. They’re medieval, they’re modern — I mean, you know, I don’t know what to say. The greatest book ever written by a Jew, as far as I’m concerned, was The Guide of the Perplexed. The single greatest book, I think. And if all of medieval Jewish literature disappeared and all that remained was The Guide of the Perplexed and Sefer Hasidim, all the way at the other end, you could probably infer your way to the fullness of the whole tradition. You could almost reconstruct it in some way, because those are the extremes. We all know about the richness of the Talmud and so on. But the richness of medieval Jewish literature is unimaginable.

E: Well, is there an Israeli author or poet that you — I know Yehuda Amichai…

W: Yehuda’s work was very important to me. There are many, I mean, the ones you know. I mean, there aren’t any secrets here, there aren’t any secrets here — the ones you know. Sometimes one discovers, you know, there are, I’m reading an Israeli poet now I’d never read before called Avraham Chalfi, who I’m coming to love, who actually became famous because Arik Einstein used to love making songs out of his poems. But he was actually a very formidable poet. The question is not the search for the greatest hits. The real challenge is to live within one’s culture, and insofar as our culture is a Jewish culture, to have the tools and the willingness. You know, there’s that great verse — the woman tells Elisha, the prophet, “Betoch ami anochi yoshevet,” “I live within my people,” I live with my people. And if that’s how you want to live intellectually, and culturally and literarily then it’s not just about greatest hits. It really isn’t. In fact, sometimes, when people come to me, or when I teach, I actually refuse to give them the answer to that question because I don’t want to make it that easy. I don’t want to make it that easy. I mean if someone came to you and said, “What are the three American books?” Sure, Moby Dick and um, well I don’t know, you name the other two.

E: I think it’s a hard question. I wouldn’t be able to answer it.

W: Right, but I wouldn’t want anyone who’s read Moby Dick and the other two to think that they were now an American, or that that’s all they needed, because it’s not remotely all they needed.

E: Okay, well, something a little different here, is freedom of creative expression endangered right now by the threat of religious violence and extremists, in the United States, elsewhere? Is that something you’re concerned about?

W: I am concerned about it for a variety of reasons. I think that the incident that happened at the PEN writers’ organization recently –

E: What happened? Tell people.

W: Well, basically they were giving an award to the two surviving editors of Charlie Hebdo, and first six, and then a petition of 400 writers, protested this award because even though they shouldn’t have been murdered, Charlie Hebdo was insulting to Muslims. And as far as I’m concerned, the only conclusion I drew from that was that terrorism works, because people became intimidated. I’m actually a real believer in genuine freedom of expression. That is to say, I don’t think Holocaust revisionism should not be against the law in Germany. I am perfectly prepared to read vicious and insulting things about myself, and my religion and my culture because I have the right to give it right back, which I do. I think that in an open society people should thicken their skins and not wake up every morning looking to be insulted. I think that between the political correctness that is now, this revival, it’s like the 1980s never happened. Between what’s happening on campuses now, between the Charlie Hebdo thing, things happening in Europe now, in other countries blasphemy laws — yes, there is a real danger to freedom of expression. And people, as I say, have got to recover the pleasures of being insulted. Having your feelings wounded is the price you pay for living in an open society.

[Audience claps]

E: So, speaking of feelings wounded, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, has a new book coming out.

W: It’s out, it’s out. [Editor’s note: Ally was released June 23.]

E: Oh, it’s out. O.K. And in the publicity buildup he singled out you and [New York Times columnist] Tom Friedman, saying that your antagonism toward Netanyahu resembles historic hatred of Jews. Do you harbor “pathological hatred,” as he says, toward Netanyahu, and do you remember that conversation with him?

W: Oh, of course I do — I’m gonna write about it this week because I want to have some fun at Michael’s expense.

[Audience laughter]

W: It’s outrageous; it’s completely risible. I have never in my wildest dreams thought I would be called an anti-Semite before. It’s kind of kinky.

[Audience laughter]

W: My revered teacher, Isaiah Berlin… he once said that an anti-Semite is a person who hates Jews more than necessary. And Michael’s book puts me in mind of that remark. I have disliked and opposed Netanyahu since the day I met him in the summer of 1982 when he was the [Deputy Chief of Mission at the Israeli Embassy] here in Washington. I think that, as a political matter, he’s taken Israel exactly nowhere and probably backwards. These are my views, I’ve been clear about my views the whole time. The conversation that Michael reports… Every time I would run into Michael — and we were old friends— I’ve made it clear to him that we don’t need to speak again for a very long time. I told you, free society. Every time I would run into him, he would say, “Why don’t you give my boss a break?” And I would say, “Well, why doesn’t your boss give Israel a break?” And we would go ‘round and ‘round. And then, one day he said to me, you know — I said to him, “Yeah, I know, it’s pathological,” which is what he — my alleged hatred of Netanyahu. And he reports this in the book. Now, of course I was speaking ironically, making fun of what Michael thought. My mistake… irony left the subject of the discussion about Israel many decades ago. But — I was very surprised to be called anti-Semitic. It’s not something I’m usually accused of — and, you know, outraged and offended, and I will strike back, because that’s what we do. But it was a strange week.

E: Well, why do you think Oren would write a book like that right now? Does it have something to do with becoming a politician now, as opposed to an ambassador?

W: Oh, I mean, I don’t want to answer, I don’t want to say anything about Michael. Instead I’ll tell you a story that comes to mind, about the time in 1847 — you’ll see why I’m saying this — Rossini went to the premiere of Wagner’s opera Tännhauser, and the critics saw Rossini at the back of the theater, and after the opera was over, they ran up to him and said, “Maestro, what is your opinion of this work?” And Rossini said, “It is impossible to form an opinion of this work having seen it only once, and since I have no intention of ever seeing it again, I have no opinion.” So, that’s my answer to your question.

E: So you haven’t read the book yet.

W: Oh I’ve read it; of course I’ve read it.

E: Oh, you have. O.K.

W: I can’t reply to it unless I read it; of course I’ve read it. Yes, yes.

E: So, do you think President Obama has been bad for Israel?

W: Yes and no. I don’t think he’s had any particular soft spot in his heart for Israel; I think that he hasn’t been an enemy of Israel’s. You know, the Jews — for good reasons and bad — want special love from presidents. And in my lifetime, every single president I can remember in the beginning was “the greatest friend that Israel ever had.” And within four or five years, he turned out to be, if not Hitler, then a problem. American policy towards Israel, at least on the subject of the Palestinians, has basically been consistent since the Nixon administration. Since the Nixon administration — peace, two states, some arrangement around Jerusalem, the annexation of the Golan will be recognized and accepted, which I’m for — but no annexation of the West Bank… and plus, a strategic alliance with Israel in the Middle East, Israel is our preferred friend, extraordinary defense cooperation — it’s basically been consistent. Even during the first Bush administration during the loan guarantee stuff, it’s basically been consistent. So, the problems are usually tonal. I think Obama is clinically confident of himself, and he thought that he could start from scratch. I mean, instead of building on where the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations had been left — and by the way, it took decades to get there, I mean… I still can’t even get over the fact that Israel and the Palestinians are even speaking. I was one of those people who would get in trouble for shaking the hands of PLO people. But he thought that he would start it all over because nobody’s cooked spaghetti until Barack Obama’s cooked spaghetti. Right? Nobody knows how to do it until he’s done it. And so, it was a huge mistake. He didn’t provide Israel with the reassurance that they needed. When he went to give his speech in Cairo, which didn’t impress me overly, instead of going to Jerusalem, he had Elie Wiesel meet him in Dachau, which was exactly the wrong thing to do. Plus, he has this hallucination about Iran. Which I regard as a — not about, I mean, even if they get the deal — I mean, I’m against the deal, and we’re not gonna talk about that now, but, you know — but say for 15 years they have this deal and it more or less works, you know, 15 years is a young person’s idea of a long time. And so 15 years will pass and… they are not gonna make the strategic decision not to have a nuclear weapon. But he has this fantasy that he’ll make the deal and then Iran will somehow be embraced and brought back into the region and be a — as he called it — a flourishing regional power. And not only is it a fantasy because it’s not gonna happen, in my view, but it’s an ugly fantasy, because who on earth wants to bring this regime back into the community of nations? It’s a criminal, oppressive, theological dictatorship that proliferates terrorism everywhere it can. And we’re inhibited by these negotiations because God forbid we should insult the supreme leader. The supreme leader, while he’s negotiating with us, is helping Hezbollah in Lebanon, is running the war for Assad with Hezbollah in Syria, is busy shoring up the government in Baghdad in Iraq, is now playing around with the Houthis in Yemen — they’re totally uninhibited. So I think we’re being strategically outplayed, and I think that the next president is going to have to reconstruct American foreign policy.

E: I guess one of the things that was bothering me is that, do you think somehow there’s an expectation that American Jewish intellectuals and journalists should drop their responsibility… to ask tough questions when it comes to Israel? And is that, that’s sort of the implication of Michael Oren’s book.

W: Yes. There are so many double standards here. The idea that —of course, if the Jews really didn’t want the Goyim to hear us criticize Israel, we shouldn’t have stopped speaking a Jewish language. Right? But we did. And this is a free country, and I will not insult my brothers and sisters on the Israeli right by suggesting that their virulent criticisms of Israeli governments were not motivated by ahavat Yisrael, by the love of Israel. I will not insult them in that way. They insult me and the so-called Jewish left that way all the time. All the time. And the truth is that the taboo against vociferously criticizing Israel in public was broken not by the left —I mean, the left, there was a group that testified on the Hill in 1979, and there was this and that — it’s after Oslo, in America, that the Jews went nuts. I mean, the right-wing Jews, they went nuts. Right or wrong, right or wrong, but they dropped all inhibitions and all of a sudden it didn’t matter who overheard, right? And the fact that the American Jewish community would not present a unified front on behalf of Israel, suddenly that didn’t matter. Now, again, I will pay them the respect of believing that they did that because they genuinely thought Israel was endangered by it. I think, when I criticize Israeli policies, that the failure of Israel to find ways to live with the Palestinians and the continuance of the settlements on the West Bank also endangers Israel. That’s my view about what endangers Israel. So insofar as it’s a debate between two conceptions of Israeli security, both of them motivated by ahavat Yisrael, it’s totally legitimate. Insofar as it’s portrayed as the left that wants the Jews to be very moral because they’re afraid of what the Goyim will think, and the right who have the spine and the guts to stand up to the world and defend Israel, I find all that deeply offensive. I think it’s rubbish. I once had an adventure, in 1980 or ‘81, they started a settlement called Elon Moreh, and I was a graduate student at Harvard and I helped start Peace Now here in the States, and I was upset, and I called various Jewish intellectuals and writers and we signed a letter and it made the front page of The New York Times.And the Prime Minister’s office issued a statement that was so delicious. A reporter asked a spokesman—it might have been Zev Chafets—”Does Mr. Begin know of this?” And he said, “Yes, you have to understand, it’s very hard for the Israeli prime minister to do his work with so much aggravation.” I thought to myself, “How Jewish can this get?” Right? I said, “Tell him next time I’ll only give him nachas.”

[Audience laughter]

W:  When I was a critic early on, I was told, “But you don’t live there, and you won’t experience the consequences of what you recommend.” But the same is true of right-wing Jews… in America—they don’t live there either. So if they’re wrong, they’re not going to experience the consequences of what they think is the case. So my view is that we should all speak freely and openly, we should all, when we can, try to impute the best of intentions, and we should stop playing cheap little guilt-mongering games.

E: So, this brings me to what’s happening in the Israeli press. Are Michael Oren and Netanyahu upset by journalists like Gideon Levy or other Israeli journalists who [are critical of Israeli policy]? Everybody’s criticizing Israel in Israel, from the left and from the right, and that doesn’t seem to create the same kind of reaction.

W: Israel has got one of the most anarchic, wild, uninhibited presses in the world. I don’t know. This whole business about what you’re allowed to say and who’s allowed to say it, I’m actually tired of that game. What matters to me is what people say and whether it’s right or wrong. The actual debate between different visions of Israeli security and between different visions of Zionism and the purpose of Israel, that’s something that I’m very happy to devote my life to. But this whole question of — you’re right, but you don’t have the right to say it; or, you’re wrong, but you should say it anyway, or why don’t you say it just in Hebrew, or — all this stuff, it’s just narishkeit.

E: What would you say to Michael if and when you run into him?

W: Oh, what I have to say to him, he’ll read by the end of the week.

[Audience laughter]

E: You’re not planning on running into him in the near future?

W: No, no, no, the truth is, all jokes aside, I don’t take kindly to being called anti-Semitic and I don’t take kindly to having Jewish self-hatred attributed to me. I don’t take kindly to it at all. It’s cheap and it’s ugly and he knows better. You know, his problem may be Jewish self-love, but that’s another subject.

E: Well, thank you very much — this is fascinating to me to hear all this, do you have anything else you want to add?

W: Well, maybe what I want to say is, I was just talking to Chaim Klein about this, who’s an old friend here. Maybe what I want to say to you wonderful people, is maybe give you a little story about chizuk [strength], for chizuk and idud [encouragement]. You know, people talk about the cultural revolution that we’re going through because of the technology, and there’s no question that it endangers certain things that all of us in this room really treasure, that a sense of crisis is entirely appropriate in some ways. And I’ve been recently involved, I got happily wrangled into playing a role in the reinvention of the National Library in Jerusalem, and I’m now in charge of a group that’s overseeing something there and it’s a great honor, and so on. And I was asked, last year I went over there, and the administration library wanted me to have a meeting with the librarians and the curators. Just to talk about the principles of what they do, and they wanted me to hear what they were doing. And so I went, and they very excitedly began to present to me, and I received it with great pleasure, sort of reports, updates on the digitalization of everything. All their maps are digitized, all manuscripts will soon be digitized, every fragment here, and I said, finally I said, “Stop. Stop. Let’s assume that the day has already come, and it will come very soon, when every single written word is on my iPhone. Every single one, the total democratization of knowledge, universal accessibility, not a scrap of paper in any public or private collection that isn’t digitized.” So, I said to them, “Well, then what? Then what? It’s all up there; it’s all up there. Then what?” And they said, “What do you mean?” And I said, “Well, isn’t it therefore the case that the tsunami that this digitization will represent, this welter, this ocean, is not going to make traditional, bibliographical and interpretive and humanistic skills less necessary — it will make it more necessary. Because people are going to need guides, in the first place, through this thicket. It’s going to be terrifying. It’s going to be absolutely terrifying.” Secondly, as I said earlier, you can put a fragment of Kafka, you can put it up on my phone, you can take me to Jerusalem and show me the original, you can make a copy of it, you microfiche it, you can microfilm it, you can — we still have to know how to read the damn thing. We still have to have reasons for reading it, we have to know why it’s important to study it, we have to know how to interpret it, we have to know how to connect it to other things that are also on my iPhone. I mean, in other words, all of these revolutions always exaggerate. That’s how revolutions are made. They have to exaggerate. If they didn’t believe that everything could be changed, then they might think that nothing could be changed. They have to exaggerate. We’re now entering the period, I think, in the digital revolution, when it’s time to focus, to think critically, and to keep our heads, and to start thinking about, what were the exaggerations of the digital revolution, what was gained, what was lost, what doesn’t have to be. In other words, I think the most pressing task for everyone involved in this, and certainly for literary people, for scholars, for bibliographers, for librarians, for curators of cultural materials, is to prepare themselves to accept that there is this new medium, and not to believe the rumors of their own obsolescence. And not to believe the rumors of their own obsolescence. Because, as I say, a hundred years from now, 50 years from now, a year from today, when it’s all done, we’re still gonna need guides. We’re still gonna need guides. And the people who are the guides are still going to hold the keys to the kingdom. They’re still going to hold the keys to the kingdom. Finally, after all the dizziness is over, the media, the platforms — they’re not that interesting. I mean, you could say that search is interesting. The problem with search, as we all know, you’re librarians and you know, that when you go up to the stacks to find the book, the book you’re really searching for is the book next to the book you were searching for, that you didn’t know existed until you searched for the book that you thought you should search for. Right? So, the thing about search on the computer is people will find what they go looking for.

E: But there’s that same phenomena that does occur from the computer, too. You can have the same parallel experience.

W: Oh, no, no, absolutely. But that’s my point. That the experience of discovery, serendipity, osmosis, the need for genuine scholarly tools for languages, for interpretive methods, the need for paleographical skills, I mean, a picture of a manuscript, a digitalization of a manuscript doesn’t straighten the yuds and the lameds and the shins out; it’s just a picture of it. Somebody’s gotta know how to read it. So, all of these skills are not only not gonna be obsolete, they’re going to be even more necessary, and that’s what I think people have to start thinking about.

E: I also think that, you know, I have a 20-year-old son, and he loves reading books, and all of my nieces and nephews are reading. They’re not on their iPads, they’re reading their kids’ books, by the way, and also, my son is writing letters and he’s drawing maps by hand. And these are things that people still love to do. And I run a magazine and people still read the magazine in print, and I love it. It’s a whole different group of people who read it in print than read it… digital, because we have both of course, you have to in this world, but that there’s this — this hasn’t gone away.

W: I think you’re right, the technology, it is completely powerless before physical reality. That’s the good news. It’s powerless before the body, it’s powerless before geography, before the mountains and the valleys and the rivers. It’s powerless before the excitement of holding a book. Again, people may choose not to, but there’s nothing that this technology can do to physical reality that will ever make the thrills that are made possible by physical reality obsolete. What matters, what can change, is the cultural prestige of those experiences, and for a while it looked like that was changing, and people are getting very jazzed by stuff that they’re experiencing online. I think that as this becomes more familiar and more routinized, people are going to be less jazzed, and then hopefully we’ll snap back to some richer appreciation of the full panoply of these media, etcetera, etcetera.

E: Although the digital archives are a gift in many ways, they’re just changing the universe —

W: Look, no question about it — no, but again, when I was in Jerusalem, there was this wonderful woman, a curator, who was explaining to me that, owing to digitalization, she was now able to have a chevruta — they were studying the ha’Meiri, and she had one person in L.A., she’s in Jerusalem, and someone in Paris. And that’s really exciting. I don’t know if they were Skyping, or FaceTime, whatever it was. And they could all look at the same page, and I said to her, “Terrific. It extends the geographical range and the possibilities and so on, but still, when you’re in your chevruta, you’ve still got to know how to read what’s on the screen. You’re still doing chevruta-type activity. That is never going to be obsolete.” So it is good. The reach of this stuff is spectacular. I mean, when I compare what the study of Jewish history was like 35 years ago when I went into the field to what it is now, the map is unimaginably denser and richer, and we knew almost nothing compared to what people know now, in all kinds of ways. Manuscripts have been identified and published, and texts have been published, and authors have been identified and mistakes have been corrected and things have been rediscovered. It’s just shocking; it’s just shocking. On the other hand, there will come the moment of truth, when that’s all very good, but, okay — now let’s learn. ‘Cause finally, that’s what it’s about. And I don’t see that the technology’s going to affect that in any significant way.

E: Thank you so much.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

2 thoughts on “Q&A With Leon Wieseltier

  1. Irving Slott says:

    Truly great.

  2. Lisa Silverman says:

    I was in the audience at this event and enjoyed this interview, thank you for posting!

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