Wall Street Journal
Books Do Furnish A Home
Intellectualism—the practice of being and living in the world as an intellectual, rather than simply using one’s intellect—poses a set of diametrically opposed challenges. On the one hand, there’s the magpie-like drive of intellectual curiosity, the desire to winkle out everything one can about an endlessly complex world. On the other, there’s the rigorously analytical drive of systematization, of trying to fit all that everything into clearly explicable channels.
Any public intellectual’s posterity depends in no small part on how well they navigate the tensions between the two. A chronicle of intellectual life like “The House of Twenty Thousand Books,” Sasha Abramsky’s tale of his brilliant grandfather, must measure its success in how well it lives up to the challenges of addressing those disparities.
Before you ask: The house in question is the externally unprepossessing 5 Hillway, Highgate, London. Though there’s no list or catalog, Mr. Abramsky’s depiction of the treasures stacked, heaped and hoarded inside its walls renders the number 20,000 utterly persuasive. But Mr. Abramsky’s book ultimately revolves around not the house, nor the books, but their reader; structured like an architectural floor plan, the book presents each room’s holdings (like a library, except they’re all reading rooms) as a jumping-off point to discuss the different interests, drives, intellectual obsessions, and emotional and psychological pulls of their occupant.
Mr. Abramsky’s grandfather Chimen Abramsky was by all accounts a remarkable man of prodigious intellect and enormous energy. (He died at age 93 in 2010.) Chimen himself was the heir to a familial tradition of intellectual achievement: His father, Yehezkel Abramsky, was considered one of the great intellects of the 20th-century rabbinate and arguably the most important Orthodox rabbi in Britain during his lifetime, having immigrated after spending time in Stalin’s Siberia for refusing to lie about the maltreatment of religious Jewry there. Chimen’s photographic recall and his voracious love of reading and scholarship could easily, had he followed in that path, suggested a similar destiny.
But the transformations of modernity had their effect on Chimen, as they did on numberless Jewish men and women born in Europe in the early part of the 20th century. By his teenage years, Chimen switched his allegiances from the Talmud to Marx, and, as the decades went on, became one of the truly great collectors of books, letters and other archival documents related to the history of socialism in Europe, earning much of his living cataloging and evaluating similar materials for auction houses.
Compared with Chimen, most of us book-lovers are mere pikers. I gasped with amazement and, to be honest, a little bit of envy when I read of an edition of “The Communist Manifesto” with Marx and Engels’s handwritten annotations, the one remaining copy of the left-wing Yiddish journal Eyrope, believed to be totally destroyed in the Blitz, and the first edition of the “Opera Posthuma” of Spinoza, that first modern Jew. Readers will also be envious at the conversations those books engendered, as reported by Mr. Abramsky, whether they were about Kant, Hegel, Maimonides or the fate of the British left. In his telling, ideas matter, and those who made their home among them—literally, in Chimen’s case, since almost every inch of the walls of the house was decorated in Early, Middle and Late Book—would constantly discuss them. The endless flow of guests included a wide variety of Britain’s most distinguished figures on the left— Isaiah Berlin and Eric Hobsbawm were visitors—along with local friends and relatives who dropped in for some of Chimen’s wife’s plentiful cooking. Even the young author, who lived a short drive away, was welcome to eavesdrop on many of the conversations.
It was probably in those conversations that Mr. Abramsky developed the facility that serves him so well throughout this book. He has a knack for swimming deep in the sea of ideas. I particularly enjoyed his comparison of the magazines of the Paris Commune to the newspapers and journals read by members of the Jewish Enlightenment in the 19th century. He also offers smart, concise pocket explanations of matters ranging from the effect of 18th-century French utopianism on leftist thinking to brief discourses on methodologies of Talmud study.
Impressive as Mr. Abramsky’s ability to juggle ideas is, he’s also quite good at chronicling how his grandfather tried—and sometimes failed—to juggle them. Drawing on numerous interviews with Chimen’s contemporaries and an impressively deep dive into the archives, the book grapples sensitively and honestly with how many of the conversations at 5 Hillway were conducted, if not in bad faith, then at least under complicated premises: the intellectual machinations and loop-de-loops required to justify support for the Soviet Union after Stalin, for example, or the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, or even, more fundamentally, the potentially unexamined conundrum of replacing one totalizing faith, that of Chimen’s father and fathers, for another. Mr. Abramsky makes this point several times that although Chimen had left Orthodox Judaism far behind, his behavior was still, in many ways, religious. For example, his grandfather would refuse to grant access to some of his most beloved treasures—a one-of-a-kind 17th century first edition Yiddish bible, say—unless he felt that the petitioner had earned it. Several of my colleagues in Jewish Studies are described, and occasionally quoted, in the book, as having undergone this ritual before entering the Holy of Holies, as it were. Ideas and books were serious: They demanded proper approach. Mr. Abramsky’s book succeeds marvelously at capturing and expressing that ethos.
Which is not to say that “The House of Twenty Thousand Books” is faultless. Could a book about intellectuals be reviewed without recourse to the other hand? It sometimes has its longueurs; forgivable, perhaps, in the press of familial duty a grandson feels toward his grandfather. And the approach of dividing the chapters by the rooms of the house, though suggestive, may not work quite as well as one would have hoped. But these are minor cavils, balanced against the book’s crisp style, the author’s boundless energy and his remarkable success at drawing a vigorous portrait of what, once Chimen’s story is read, will become an indelible figure.
One of the most profound expressions of the paradoxes and contradictions of Chimen’s life is that he was, as academics sometimes like to say, deeply underpublished. Although he was acknowledged as one of the greatest experts in his fields, he left little behind in the way of printed scholarship. In his grandson’s loving, but intellectually responsible tribute, Chimen Abramsky has found his posterity.
by Jeremy Dauber
© The Wall Street Journal, Sep 2015