"The House of Twenty Thousand Books is journalist Sasha Abramsky's elegy to the vanished intellectual world of his grandparents, Chimen and Miriam, and their vast library of socialist literature and Jewish history. A rare book dealer and self-educated polymath who would go on to teach at Oxford and consult for Sotheby's, Chimen Abramsky drew great writers and thinkers like Isaiah Berlin and Eric Hobsbawm to his north London home; his library grew from his abiding passion for books and his search for an enduring ideology. The books, documents, and manuscripts that covered every shelf at 5 Hillway were testaments to Chimen's quest -- from the Jewish orthodoxy of his boyhood, to the Communism of his youth, to the liberalism of his mature years. The House of Twenty Thousand Books is at once the story of a fascinating family and chronicle of the embattled twentieth century. The House of Twenty Thousand Books includes 43 photos. "--
Sasha Abramsky's...well, tribute is really the only word for it, to his grandfather Chimon Abramsky is structured around this house the author practically grew up in. He steps in the front foyer, with all the books of early socialist literature to be found there (only one small cupboard grudgingly given over as a place for people's coats), to talk about his great grandfather and his family's suffering under the late tsarist (pogroms) and then the new soviet (Siberian labor camps for dissidents) regimes, and to explore how Chimon became committed to socialism, and even to Stalinism, despite what his family endured, what friends reported when they escaped.
He guides the reader to the kitchen to remember his grandmother Mimi, an Communist activist and psychologist who for years was the head of the Psychiatric Social Work Department of the Royal Free Hospital, as well as the social hostess of Hillway, who fed political and philosophical debates that would coalesce in the impromptu salons with an apparently endless supply of kosher food.
He takes the reader to the Master Bedroom, where Chimon kept his most valuable and historic works of Socialist and Jewish literature -- a complete collection of William Morris's The Commonweal, books with notes handwritten by Karl Marx, annotated by Lenin, manuscripts by Trotsky. We are then guided into the Front Parlor -- where his rising interest in Judaica makes itself known, into the Dining Room, where Jewish history vied for space with prints by Russian Jewish artists, works about revolution, about the need for a Jewish state. Tradition met modernity in this room.
And finally the reader is taken upstairs, perhaps the most mysterious rooms in the house to Sasha as a child -- the books often written in mysterious languages, on old parchment. First edition Spinoza. A manuscript with notes handwritten by Rashi (the great Talmudic scholar), illuminated Hebrew Bibles and copies of the Talmud from the Renaissance.
As the reader is guided into each room they are given not a bibliography of books, exactly, but the author's own thoughts about what the books meant to their owner, to Chimon. The house is a portrait in books, a record of a passionate intellectual life full of great energy, great joy, and also great grief.
The whole account is worth it just for the portrait it gives of leftist and communist activism on the eve of WWII and in the years that immediately followed. And also for its account of how the community tore itself apart following the revelations of Stalin's atrocities. And also for the way it documents the struggles of a conservative and orthodox Jewish community to adapt to a modern, humanistic, and even atheistic time.
And while the account is not without its flaws -- Sasha Abramsky has many questions about his grandfather for which he can only speculate answers, and there is a staggering amount of name dropping since Hillway was the kind of house intellectuals of the era made a point of dropping in to visit, in the end these are minor quibbles compared to the picture the author creates of the man, the family, the house, the movement, the era.
Sasha Abramsky's grandfather's collection's main concentration was on socialist/communist literature, with an emphasis on Marx, and a lesser focus on Jewish intellectual history and religious literature. He was a serious collector, an expert and a professional bookman, taking pride in owning one of the finest collections of both socialist literature and Judaica in the world in his time. Pretty esoteric stuff. That said, some of the books had remarkable historical significance (not to mention the art, which even I could appreciate!), and I think most book lovers will appreciate the sensual appeal of the vellum pages, soft leather bindings, one-of-a-kind 16th and 17th century manuscripts, etc. that Abramsky lovingly describes.
Chimen's library, however, is not really the real subject of this book. Chimen himself, whose life was inextricably intertwined with his fabulous collection, is. Chimen Abramsky, a Russian (Atheist) Jew, who emigrated to England in the early 1930's, and his wife, Mimi, are at the center of his grandson's book. Through his stories of their early involvement in the Communist party, and their eventual disillusionment with communism, when they shifted to liberal politics and a passion for Israel, he offers insights into the motivations of many young idealists in the period between and immediately after the world wars. Reacting against Fascism and religious conservatism, Abramsky's grandparents were actively involved in the English Communist community, their home becoming a “salon” in which lively political discussion and debates were regularly conducted around Mimi's well-stocked table. In the later 1950's and beyond, after they could no longer avoid recognizing the crimes of Soviet Communism, their politics changed, but the passionate intellectual gatherings continued, with some alterations in the guest list. Abramsky clearly recognizes that many of his readers will find his grandfather's years of enthusiasm for Stalin either disconcerting or dull (or both), and, unfortunately, his “apologies” become almost as wearisome as the topic itself.
The room by room organizational structure is clever, and I very much appreciated the photos of the library and of the various rare books. Pictures of “Beauty and the Beast” type libraries in mansions are all very well, but I really enjoyed reading here about the way the Abramsky family lived in a fairly ordinary sized home with their enormous collection. Different rooms house different subjects, and Abramsky uses these divisions to organize the tale of his grandparents' lives. Regrettably, there gets to be a certain sameness about the story. His grandfather collects books for and with other enthusiasts, he travels and lectures, he and Mimi host gatherings at which friends and family talk and argue about politics, and Mimi cooks rich, delicious meals. And Chimen eventually repents his astonishingly lengthy support for Stalin. Move to a new room and repeat, with slight variations.
Despite a long “3 star” section halfway through, this was mostly a 3 ½ star book for me and I'm rounding it up. Abramsky's love and admiration for his grandparents shine from the pages, and they were clearly kind, passionate, idealistic people. The portrait here, of a family and their community, deeply engaged in intellectual debate and surrounded by books, is memorable and appealing. My only qualification is that I've had enjoyed it even more with some of the repetitiveness eliminated.
All true libraries are, or course, "working libraries," but it shows how far we've receded from an intimate familiarity with libraries that we now must append as an adjective what earlier would go without saying. The "work" involved for this library that the subject put together within his House of Twenty Thousand Books is not something he did over and apart from himself; rather the library was an extension of his interior intellectual life. The life of Chimen Abramsky can be read off the stratigraphic layers and piles of his personal library, his developing interests and goals mirrored in the changes in the materials chosen and preserved in this, his "working library." As his grandson demonstrates, the library was, in a meaningful sense, Chimen's spirit and questing soul given physical form, and to recapture the former we need look no further than the latter. The ability to read backwards from library to library owner is a disappearing art, however, and we owe the author a great debt for reminding us how it should be done.
I thought the first part of this was a bit on the recursive side, circling back heavy-handedly to the emphasize the political, cultural, and family history more than Abramsky really needed to (or maybe just more than I needed him to). I do understand how much he wanted to establish that base of knowledge in the reader, and I think once he hit what he imagined that point to be, the book hit its groove and was a really fascinating intersection of all those histories, and a great ode to bookishness in a non-precious or readers-are-superior-beings way, which always bothers me when it crops up. This is a very Jewish book, in an entirely good and holistic way, and definitely recommended for anyone with an interest in that side of 20th-century arts and letters.
A second contradiction was his relationship with religion. Nominally an atheist, he ate only kosher and, at least in public, followed Jewish customs (feeling guilty to be seen in a car during Sabbath). His exposure and knowledge of Jewish texts first turned him into a book expert, an authority and finally a university professor on Jewish history. It is a paradox consequence of the Holocaust that only that catastrophe and destruction made the creation of huge Jewish book collections possible in the West as the East European Jews would not have been willing to sell their dearest possessions to foreign buyers. Abramsky's skill was matching US money with forgotten and neglected Jewish books on the European continent. One consequence of his work was the establishment of a huge Jewish manuscript collection now in a university library that will conserve them for future generations.
The twenty-thousand books of the title ended up dispersed and sold off in all direction. Most unfortunate was the outcome of a letter written by Voltaire that most likely was thrown out and probably destroyed after Abramsky's death. Overall, an interesting life of a member of the cosmopolitan Jewish Russian diaspora in England.
TBB / TBD just published in 2015.
The atheist son of one of the century’s most important rabbis, Chimen was born in 1916 near Minsk, spent his early teenage years in Moscow while his father served time in a Siberian labor camp for religious proselytizing, and then immigrated to London, where he discovered the writings of Karl Marx and became involved in left-wing politics. He briefly attended the newly established Hebrew University in Jerusalem, until World War II interrupted his studies. Back in England, he married, and for many years he and Miriam ran a respected Jewish bookshop in London’s East End.