The House of Twenty Thousand Books

New York Review Books  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.

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