Published 26 June 2014
Length 356 pages
ISBN 9781905559657 (ebook)
The House of Twenty Thousand Books
This is the story of Sasha Abramsky’s grandparents, Chimen and Miriam Abramsky, and of their unique home at 5 Hillway, around the corner from Hampstead Heath.
In their semi-detached house, so deceptively ordinary from the outside, the Abramskys created a remarkable House of Books. It became the repository for Chimen’s collection of thousands upon thousands of books, manuscripts and other printed, handwritten and painted documents, representing his journey through the great political, philosophical, religious and ethical debates that have shaped the western world.
Chimen Abramsky was barely a teenager when his father, a famous rabbi, was arrested by Stalin’s secret police and sentenced to five years hard labour in Siberia, and fifteen when his family was exiled to London. Lacking a university degree, he nevertheless became a polymath, always obsessed with collecting ideas, with capturing the meanderings of the human soul through the world of great thoughts and thinkers. Rejecting his father’s Orthodoxy, he became a Communist, made his living as a book-dealer and amassed a huge, and astonishingly rare, library of socialist literature and memorabilia. Disillusioned with Communism and belatedly recognising the barbarity at the core of Stalin’s project, he transformed himself once more, this time into a liberal and a humanist. To his socialist library was added a vastrove of Jewish history volumes. Chimen ended his career as Professor of Hebrew and Jewish studies at UCL, London and rare manuscripts expert for Sotheby’s.
With his wife Miriam, Chimen made their house a focal point for left-wing intellectual Jewish life: hundreds of the world’s leading thinkers, from Isaiah Berlin to Eric Hobsbawm, dined at their table. The House of Twenty Thousand Books brings alive this latter-day salon by telling the story of Chimen Abramsky’s love affair with ideas and with the world of books and of Miriam’s obsession with being a hostess and with entertaining. Room by room, book by book, idea by idea, the world of these politically engaged intellectuals, autodidacts and dreamers is lovingly resurrected.
In this extraordinary elegy to a lost world, Sasha Abramsky’s passionate narrative brings to life once more not just the Hillway salon, but the ideas, the conflicts, the personalities and the human yearnings that animated it.
About Sasha Abramsky
Sasha Abramsky is a widely published freelance journalist and author. In the UK, his work has appeared in the Guardian, Observer, Independent and Sunday Telegraph. In the U.S. he writes for the Nation, American Prospect, New Yorker online and many other publications. His most recent book, The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives was listed by the New York Times as among the one hundred notable books of 2013. Sasha Abramsky lives in California with his wife and two children.
Jewish Renaissance: 'There will be few better books published this year.'
We are delighted to announce that Sasha Abramsky's book has been longlisted for the JQ-Wingate Literary Prize 2016.
LA Review of Books: 'He writes with both love and respect, an understandable nostalgia, and with sympathy, if not total agreement, with his grandfather’s intellectual and political preoccupations.'
Sasha Abramsky reads an excerpt from The House of Twenty Thousand Books and recalls his own memories in this interview with Beth Ruyak on Capital Public Radio.
New Republic: 'How he loved to show the works of a rabbi and a radical philosopher on the same shelf, showing how the bookshelf is the true territory of human harmony’ -
Kirkus: 'A wonderful celebration of the mind, history, and love'
Tablet Magazine: 'The book succeeds marvelously in ... enveloping the reader in the proverbial lost or vanished world'
'... it embodies a singular intellectual journey through the political, philosophical, and religious disputations of the Western world and of 20th-century intellectual history.'
Toby Lichtig, TLS: 'Abramsky has produced a wonderful addition to the canon of Jewish grandchild literature'
Emma Klein, The Tablet UK's 'Books of the Year 2014': 'Sasha Abramsky has brought to life the vanished world of his grandparents...who entertained some of the leading intellectuals of the day in their home'.
Jonathan Keates, TLS's 'Books of the Year': The House of Twenty Thousand Books 'struck an instant chord'.
Seforim blog: 'an unusual, affectionate, and admiring memoir. Booklovers will love it'.
Ham & High: 'Abramsky’s wistful tone makes clear that The House of Twenty Thousand Books was a project close to his heart. “Of all the things that I’ve ever written in my life, this was the one that obsessed me completely and utterly,” he admits. “It was hard to write and hard to finish."'
In this excellent Huffington Post article, Peter Drier recalls memories of Chimen Abramsky as his Jewish History professor: "I was mesmerized by his presence... a tiny man who seemed quirky, eccentric, impish, and brilliant."
The Jewish Chronicle: ‘Memorialising an epoch in Jewish life, he mixes the visual with the instructive in a way that could inspire a television series. ’
‘The sheer richness of this marvellous book – in terms of its style, think Borges, Perec – amply complements the wondrous complexity of the family – in terms of its subject-matter, think the Eitingons, the Ephrussi – about which Sasha Abramsky writes so lovingly. And as a portrait of London's left-wing Jewish intellectual life it is surely without equal.’
‘I loved this touching and heartfelt celebration of a scholar, teacher and bibliophile, a man whose profound learning was fine-tempered by humane wisdom and self-knowledge. We might all of us envy Sasha Abramsky in possessing such a remarkable grandfather, heroic in his integrity and evoked for us here with real eloquence and affection.’
‘Sasha Abramsky has combined four kinds of history – familial, political, Jewish, and literary – into one brilliant and compelling book. With him as an erudite and sensitive guide, any reader will be grateful for the opportunity to be immersed into the house of twenty thousand books.’
‘The House of Twenty Thousand Books is a grandson's elegy for the vanished world of his grandparents’ house in London and the exuberant, passionate jostling of two traditions ¬– Jewish and Marxist – that intertwined in his growing up. It is a fascinating memoir of the fatal encounter between Russian Jewish yearning for freedom and the Stalinist creed, a grandson's unsparing, but loving reckoning with a conflicted inheritance. In the digital age, it will also make you long for the smell of old books, the dust on shelves and the collector's passions, all on display in The House of Twenty Thousand Books.’