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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Outwitting History

Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books
by Aaron Lansky
312 pages


While in grad school in the 1970s Aaron Lansky decides to learn Yiddish. Unfortunately for him, Yiddish books aren't exactly easy to come by. Suddenly he gets an idea - why not ask people to donate their books for college students to use? What began as a simple idea turned into a race against time to preserve Yiddish books for future generations.

Let me tell you right now - I LOVED this book. I couldn't get into it at first and I actually put it down for a few weeks, but once I read the first few chapter I was hooked.

To put it simply, Outwitting History is Lansky's love letter to books, specifically Yiddish books. But it is more than that; it is his love letter to a culture and a language that, in its original form, is disappearing before his eyes. (For a better summary of the book, click here.)

Lansky is ultimately successful in preserving 1.5 million Yiddish books. That's a great achievement, to be sure. However, what really struck me while reading was not his successes and failures, but rather the personal connections he made with the older generation of Jews.

You see, when he first asked for book donations, he expected to arrive at a home, pick up a box of books, then leave. What happened was very different. Upon arrival he would be welcomed in like a long-lost relative. Food would be served in abundance and conversation would ensue. Only after getting to know him better would the elderly Jews bring out their precious books. They would hand the books to Lansky one at a time, explaining the history of each book - how they came to own it, what it meant in their lives, and so on. Each visit had the potential to last for hours. These people were passing on their lives, their cultural inheritance, to the only person who wanted it. In most cases their children didn't speak Yiddish, nor were they interested in hearing about the past. But Lansky (and later, his colleagues) took his job seriously and did his best to soak in the stories and the history.

For me, this is so very similar to what I do with my grandparents. I want to know what they have to say, what their lives were like, everything about them. Maybe that's why I connected with this book so much. I think it is more than that though. The idea of a culture or a language passing into oblivion is horrifying to me. I admire Lansky for his commitment to do what he could to stop that from happening.

My copy of this book includes a reader's guide too. If your book club is interested in non-fiction, this would make an excellent choice. In my book club, this would have been a flop, unfortunately. But I highly recommend it - if it sounds even slightly interesting to you, go read it!

4 comments:

Alyce said...

This book sounds wonderful! I'm adding it to my list right now. (That would be my mile long wish list.) :)

Dawn - She is Too Fond of Books said...

How did you come across this book, Heather? It sounds like one I'd really like! I'm putting it on my Friday Finds (which may not post until after the new year, at this point).

Heather J. said...

Dawn - I saw the title while browsing Paperbackswap.com and it just sounded interesting. At first I thought it took place during WWII and when I realized I was wrong, I was disappointed. However this book was much better than I expected in so many ways!

Matt (Matt's Book Blog) said...

My father urged me to read it and my mother did too. Once I started I couldn't stop reading. Parts made me misty - the destruction of Yiddish-speaking culture in Europe, of course, but also the kindness of the people who donated their books. He tells genuinely heart-warming stories. Plus, he mentioned providing books to a Jewish Community Center in Riga, Latvia - a center that was just down the street from the school where I taught English from 1993 to 1997! I strongly recommend this book.

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