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.
Abramsky's tale begins after his grandfather Chimen's death, with his family faced with the daunting task of cleaning out a London house filled to bursting with books, many of them rare, on Marxism, socialism, and Judaica. Doing so stirred the desire to make sense of this literary and familial legacy, which Abramsky (The American Way of Poverty) chronicles in a loving but clear-eyed manner. Born in Minsk in 1916, Chimen eventually made his way to London, there pursuing a passion for Communism in defiance of his father, a prominent rabbi. After Chimen married his wife, Miriam, in 1940, the couple ran a Jewish bookstore in the East End. Meanwhile, their house became an intellectual gathering place, the dining room table groaning with Miriam's food and animated by heated conversation. As a leading expert on Jewish and Socialist texts, Chimen consulted for Sotheby's, and, late in life, attained long-craved academic recognition by lecturing at University College London. Each room of the house had its own place in the collection, and in the author's recollections. The result is a fascinating if jumbled blend of history, biography, and memoir that works despite itself a reflection of the seemingly disordered, cluttered house that contained its own internal order and treasures. 43 b&w photos.