Memoir of Jewish intellectual life and universal history alike, told through a houseful of books, their eccentric collectors, and the rooms in which they dwelled.
Chimen Abramsky (1916-2010) and his wife, Miriam, were easily overlooked people who made a long life in a brick house in North London. But they were giants of a kind, for what a house it was: sprawling and ramshackle but jammed to the rafters with books and papers, serving as “one of left-wing London’s great salons.” In this entertaining, deeply learned book, Sasha Abramsky (Writing/Univ. of California, Davis; The American Way of Poverty, 2013, etc.) adds materially to Chimen and Mimi’s 20,000 volumes. On another level, the book, like that grand library, is a narrative of the broad sweep of Jewish diaspora history. Chimen was a collector of useful books. For him, that doctrine of usefulness embraced the works of Karl Marx in explaining how the modern world works, Charles Darwin in explaining how life evolved, Maimonides in explaining how life should be lived, and so forth. Chimen had a sticky mind that remembered everything, and he made connections among all the things stored within: Abramsky the grandson remembers marveling when, as a very old man, Chimen, who “had almost certainly never once kicked a ball,” was able to discourse smartly on David Beckham’s career prospects simply by virtue of all the oddments he had collected about him. As the story unfolds, we follow Chimen and Mimi from room to room, most of them colonized by the former as the children grew up and moved out, and we hear their stories: of Chimen’s angry annoyance when someone said Hitler was crazy, which “gave Hitler and the Germans a free pass,” of the couple’s rich minds and witty conversations, and of the thought of vicariously “touching a book that Marx had owned and commented on.”
If you finish this brilliantly realized book thinking you need to own more books, you’re to be forgiven. A wonderful celebration of the mind, history, and love.