Short Take: Twenty Thousand Books

This is the second post in a new online series from North Dakota Quarterly called Short Takes. A few times a month, we’ll post a short reflection on a book, album, or film.

A few years ago, philosopher novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein played with aesthetic form on a page of her book Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (New York 2006). She included a visual reproduction of Baruch Spinoza’s signature.

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Within the pages of Goldstein’s philosophically adventurous book, it was exhilarating to come across such an image: a reader’s historical imagination is pulled into close contemplation of a particular human being, someone putting a particular pen to a particular sheet of paper at a particular moment in history. A signature with an intriguing period. Aesthetically and philosophically dynamic, and quite wonderful.

There are many similarly exhilarating moments for readers of Sasha Abramsky’s The House of Twenty Thousand Books (New York: New York Review Book, 2015), a remarkable intellectual and personal tribute to his grandparents Chimen Abramsky (1916-2010) and Miriam Abramsky (1917-1997). These two lived through the most turbulent events of the European twentieth century and presided for decades over their London house, a house stuffed floors to ceilings with books and crowded with people who read, argued and acted to change their world. Abramsky walks readers through the rooms, along shelf after shelf, pausing to pull books and memories.

The books emerge from the historical crosscurrents of European socialist and Jewish thought: the collected works and letters of Karl Marx; hundreds of volumes by other socialist philosophers and historians across time and stance; Judaica covering centuries; Talmuds, Torahs, Haggadahs and manuscript art abounding; stacks of political magazines and leftist journals; visual art of all kinds, some on the walls, some tucked into folders; philosophical and political writings grappling with “modernity”- the writers of Haskalah and Enlightenment; social theorists and artists struggling through the catastrophes of World War I, World War II; Jewish writers confronting Russian history; writers on the left confronting Soviet history; writers of different eras arguing over Zionism, the state of Israel, the fate of Palestinians; thinkers debating the future of liberal thought. The shelves go on and on.

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Sasha Abramsky does not just catalogue Chimen Abramsky’s “house of books,” he tracks the lives of his grandparents, his great-grandparents (including the famous Talmudist and rabbi Yehezkel Abramsky, 1886-1976) and their friends and colleagues, including Eric Hobsbawm, Isaiah Berlin, Raph Samuel, and many others who over decades crowded into the house for food, debate, and arguments illuminating and sometimes unresolvable.

The House of Twenty Thousand Books is also Sasha Abramsky’s own meditation on the nature of passionate political and philosophical commitment. He explains with real insight the impact of wars, pogroms, exile, and dislocation on a whole generation who embraced secularity and socialism, and were willing to work for many years within the contradictory tensions of international communism. Then he explores very directly what seemed to him (and others) to have been Chimen’s overzealous ventriloquizing of the Party Line and troublingly late abandonment of the Communist Party of Great Britain in light of the grotesque moral betrayals of Stalinism. Even among those who left the CP but remained democratic socialists, rifts opened, friendships ended, and Sasha underscores Chimen’s long grief over what he came to see as his own failure to face political realities and leave the party sooner.

There is a thoughtful invocation of complex loss in the book overall, not only the loss of these particular people and this generation of passionate intellectuals, but the loss of an era of book-filled houses, idea-filled social commitments, and utopian political hope.

It turns out that Chimen Abramsky loved Spinoza, and he did so for reasons similar to those of Albert Einstein, whose famous quote opens the chapter titled “Upstairs Front Room: Roots.” Said Einstein in 1929:

“I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”

After taking readers on a long wander through centuries of thinking about the nature of human experience, Sasha Abramsky can still delight and startle with a personified image, creating a moment much like spending hours in a used bookstore, then suddenly stumbling upon a treasure:

“In that overheated upstairs room, the ceiling of which would periodically suffer water damage after a particularly heavy rainstorm, Chimen would occasionally consult his first editions [!!!] of Spinoza: a Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, printed in Amsterdam in 1670, and Opera Posthuma from seven years later, published by Spinoza’s friends shortly after his death.” (247)

A moment aesthetically and philosophically dynamic, and quite wonderful.

Sharon Carson, Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor, Department of English, University of North Dakota