The House of Twenty Thousand Books

The House of Twenty Thousand Books

Sasha Abramsky

Language: English

Pages: 336

ISBN: 1590178882

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


Named one of Kirkus's Best Nonfiction Books of 2015

The House of Twenty Thousand Books is the story of Chimen Abramsky, an extraordinary polymath and bibliophile who amassed a vast collection of socialist literature and Jewish history. For more than fifty years Chimen and his wife, Miriam, hosted epic gatherings in their house of books that brought together many of the age’s greatest thinkers.

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. When the Nazis invaded Russia in June 1941, Chimen joined the Communist Party, becoming a leading figure in the party’s National Jewish Committee. He remained a member until 1958, when, shockingly late in the day, he finally acknowledged the atrocities committed by Stalin. In middle age, Chimen reinvented himself once more, this time as a liberal thinker, humanist, professor, and manuscripts’ expert for Sotheby’s auction house. 

Journalist Sasha Abramsky re-creates here a lost world, bringing to life the people, the books, and the ideas that filled his grandparents’ house, from gatherings that included Eric Hobsbawm and Isaiah Berlin to books with Marx’s handwritten notes, William Morris manuscripts and woodcuts, an early sixteenth-century Bomberg Bible, and a first edition of Descartes’s Meditations. The House of Twenty Thousand Books is a wondrous journey through our times, from the vanished worlds of Eastern European Jewry to the cacophonous politics of modernity.

The House of Twenty Thousand Books includes 43 photos.  

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the poet Bialik (some of whose original manuscripts eventually made their way into Chimen’s collection) had introduced into the Hebrew lexicon; about Israeli theater; about modern-day Sephardic poets. His notes were usually handwritten, either fully worked out speeches written on lined paper or densely scribbled crib notes on index cards. His only concession to visual aids for his audiences was a list of names, dates, and places chalked onto the blackboard, in near-illegible handwriting, before

finance, politics. And he gave his audience an overview of the various political movements toward emancipation, and the surge in the Jewish populations of cities that followed the lifting of residency restrictions: The Jewish population of Berlin, for example, increased from barely 1,000 during Mendelssohn’s lifetime to more than 300,000 by the time the Nazis came to power 150 years later. He also discoursed on the rise of the highly political and ultimately deadly anti-Semitism that mushroomed

Pascal, the seventeenth-century French mathematician and philosopher. Pascal had formulated a famous wager in favor of the existence of God: If you bet there is no God and you are wrong, a wrathful deity is likely to condemn your eternal soul to hellfire; but if you gamble that there is a God and there is not, your consciousness will cease to exist upon your death and you will never know that you were wrong. Much better, therefore, argued Pascal, to believe in God. A little over two millennia

birthday, a collection of family images going back to the mid-nineteenth century. I was fourteen when I made that album; with hindsight I realize it was the first serious history project that I ever embarked upon, scavenging family contacts around the globe, writing to them, asking them to rummage through old boxes for photos of people now long dead, and then coaxing them to conjure up biographical information on those individuals. The books and the album, together, represent to me a vision of

than miracles such as the parting of the Red Sea for Moses, truly represented the infinite power of God. Maimonides had depersonalized God yet retained the possibility of miracles; now Spinoza was, to all intents and purposes, turning God into another name for “the universe.” Spinoza’s God was everything; therefore, in some ways, the religious leaders who rounded on him realized that He was nothing. He existed so far removed from human concerns, so remote from human lives that the rituals of

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