Inside the house, an old man sits, surrounded by words. He trembles with Parkinson’s disease. Once strong as a bull, the product of having “schlepped heavy boxes of books around the great metropolis,” as his grandson recalls, he is now a man whose body is held together mostly by willpower, just as his long-deteriorating house near London’s Hampstead Heath is mostly held together by books, piles on piles and walls on walls of them, books in English, Russian, Hebrew, Yiddish, German, and many other languages.
By American standards, the house is on the smallish side. But to a child, it is immense, and full of mystery—and, as that child grows, full of answers to nearly every one of life’s questions.
That grown child is Sasha Abramsky, now a journalist and political commentator, the author of such books as Inside Obama’s Brain (2009) and The American Way of Poverty (2012). The old man, widowed and alone in that print-shored brick house, is his grandfather Chimen Abramsky, gone 10 years now. An accidental immigrant to the great London metropolis, caught there by the events of World War II, Chimen had run a small Jewish bookshop with his wife, Mimi. Already bookish, Chimen got high on his own supply, so to speak: over the years, he went to bookseller to book collector to book addict, building a private library of an extent and comprehensiveness with very few peers.
Moreover, writes Sasha—“my parents had a bit of a fetish about Russian diminutives,” he smilingly tells Kirkus Reviews—in his memoir The House of Twenty Thousand Books, Chimen amassed a collection of books that contained many items that not even the British Library had. Two collections, really: one of Judaica, the other of socialism and communism, the house at 5 Hillway, in a former estate ironically settled by many leftist activists in the 1930s and 1940s, eventually becoming a kind of salon for the likes of Isaiah Berlin, Tariq Ali, and other political intellectuals. They, too, were surrounded by Chimen’s books, at once impulsively and carefully gathered: books that Karl Marx had once owned, that Theodor Herzl had held, that Bakunin and Mendelssohn and Chagall had lingered over.
Sasha, who had the run of most of the collection and was invited to take part in the grown-up, heady conversations that took place in the house, says that from an early age on, “I always knew I was going to write a book about my grandfather and his books.” His affectionate, deeply learned memoir travels room by room with Chimen, growing and moving even as Chimen’s collection waxes, overflowing its shelves and filling every inch of available space. But always with a purpose, for, as Sasha writes, “in his book purchases, Chimen was drawing maps of safety zones for Jews across time and space.”
Chimen Abramsky’s collection is gone now, broken up, dispersed among collections and libraries and bookstores throughout the world. The world spins ever faster, for it was that collection, under Chimen’s curatorial hand, that “stopped, just for a moment, the onward march of time, the return to dust that is our destiny.” Sasha Abramsky keeps a couple of hundred volumes as a reminder of his grandfather, who built a bridge of those books, lovingly amassing them over three-quarters of a century. The collection is gone, yes, but it lives on in Sasha Abramsky’s fine book, a pleasure—and an education—for anyone who loves the life of the word and of the mind.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.