The House of Twen­ty Thou­sand Books

  • Review
By – May 18, 2015

With book peo­ple, you know what’s on their minds by look­ing at the books they own and how they’re arranged. So when Sasha Abram­sky explores the lives of his grand­par­ents, he doesn’t orga­nize their sto­ries chrono­log­i­cal­ly, but by the geog­ra­phy of their book­shelves. Each region of his grand­par­ents’ home had its par­tic­u­lar func­tion and its par­tic­u­lar book collections.

The mov­ing force of this house was Sasha’s grand­fa­ther, Chi­men Abram­sky, a self-edu­cat­ed book-deal­er, cat­a­loguer, col­lec­tor, pub­lish­er, salonist, and uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor. Born in Min­sk in 1916, Chi­men was the son of a long line of dis­tin­guished rab­bis. After accu­sa­tions of anti-Sovi­et activ­i­ties, the fam­i­ly was exiled to Eng­land, where, per­verse­ly, Chi­men start­ed his own Left­ist edu­ca­tion. After a peri­od in Pales­tine, Chi­men returned to Lon­don on the eve of World War II, where he met Miri­am Niren­stein in her family’s book­store. The two mar­ried and bought 5 Hill­way in North Lon­don, which became the House of Books.

Sasha Abramsky’s account ram­bles into mar­velous­ly eclec­tic cor­ners, from the authen­ti­ca­tion of incunab­u­la, to the dif­fer­ences between vel­lum and parch­ment, to the Rab­binic posi­tion on pigskin bind­ings. Cer­tain­ly Chimen’s life­long friend­ships with Isa­iah Berlin, Piero Sraf­fa, and oth­er twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry thinkers will inter­est many read­ers. But the most fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry is the evo­lu­tion of Chi­men him­self — the son with seri­ous rab­binic yichis who reject­ed reli­gion but ran two Seders a year and nev­er served treyf in his home; the Par­ty mem­ber so faith­ful he eulo­gized Stal­in, until he dis­cov­ered the lies and turned in his mem­ber­ship card; the book deal­er who spent decades curat­ing an exhaus­tive col­lec­tion of Social­ist lit­er­a­ture, only to become one of Europe’s lead­ing col­lec­tors of Judaica. His­to­ri­ans of the Old and New Left move­ments in Britain, stu­dents of Jew­ish his­to­ry and phi­los­o­phy, and book-lovers of any stripe will find this mem­oir total­ly absorb­ing. Index, photographs.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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