Outwitting History

Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books, by

Aaron Lansky

This is such a fabulous book and I had so much fun reading it!  It's been on my pile for a while now, and I'm only sorry I didn't get to it sooner.  OK, so...

In 1980, the study of Yiddish and Yiddish literature was pretty well moribund.  Judaic scholars tended to focus on Hebrew and Jewish history, and considered Yiddish to be kind of an ugly half-language, not really worth preserving.  The Yiddish speakers of the world were elderly, and, having moved to new countries, had not passed on the language to their children.  Aaron Lansky and a couple of other grad students were interested in learning Yiddish, and pretty soon some other young grad student types were joining them, but they couldn't find the books to read. 

Where were all the Yiddish books?  Libraries didn't have them any more.  Bookstores didn't carry them.  But they were collecting in corners, being thrown out by a younger generation that couldn't read them, piling up in attics.  Lansky and company decided to start collecting Yiddish books to share between students.  Pretty soon they realized that unless somebody started saving these books, they were going to disappear.  The Yiddish Book Center got started at the eleventh hour, just in time to save Yiddish literature from being almost completely lost.

So this is the story of Lansky and friends and the National Yiddish Book Center.  He writes about how they got started, and the many stories of how they collected the books -- on a shoestring budget -- and how it grew into this amazing thing.  When they started, it was thought that maybe 70,000 Yiddish titles existed in the world.  They've saved 1.5 million -- including pamphlets, sheet music, children's books, and all kinds of wonderful stuff.  Not only that, they were the first to scan and digitize books on a large scale, so that the books could be read by everyone (well, everyone who can read Yiddish), and they've been translating great works of literature so that the rest of us can read some too.

It's a particularly thrilling read for a librarian, as you can imagine, but it's a great read for anybody who loves books or history.  It will put a lot of Yiddish authors on your TBR list.  Lansky is fun to read, and he'll make you tear up fairly often as well.

(Here is my favorite phrase in the book, which makes perfect sense if you've ever lived in the Bay Area:  "...a declining commune of left-wing Jewish chicken farmers in nearby Petaluma.")

The best story is of how Lansky was given a massive scholarly tome printed in Kiev in 1929 -- and discovered that he had the only copy to survive the NKVD's destruction of the entire printing.
My heart started thumping -- I didn't know what to do first.  I hid the book, locked the door, and turned on the burglar alarm.  That night I could hardly sleep.  Early the next morning I phoned...the book our interns discovered could well be the last copy on earth.

I really enjoyed this book, I enjoyed visiting the Yiddish Book Center online (click!  go!), and I'll be making an effort to include some Yiddish literature in my reading!


  1. Strangely, I have this one checked out from the library and I have no idea why. Perhaps I saw it in my GR feed from you ...??? In any case, I am picking it up and reading! I'm so glad the holidays are coming!!

  2. Oh, fun! You will really enjoy it. Plus I forgot to say, there's a whole section on Yiddish books in Canada...

  3. i got so excited after reading this book that i found myself spontaneously dashing about behind stores and malls, poking into dumpsters and garbage cans and asking people if they had any old books they didn't want! it truly is one of the most inspiring works i've ever read... i'm still interested in book collecting, but not rabid like i was then... wonderful post tx a bunch!

  4. Oh my God, I can't imagine what I would feel like if I discovered I had the last copy of a book on earth. I guess it would be less scary now that scanning and digitizing exists? Right? Because I could have the book scanned and then there would be infinity copies of it! But even then I think I would feel a lot of anxiety about having the only physical copy.

    This sounds fascinating!

  5. I know! I would feel like the top of my head was coming off. I completely understood why he freaked out and hid the book, ha! I bet he worried all night that the house would suddenly burn down. I'm sure it's digitized now, but until it was safely scanned I wouldn't sleep too well!


Post a Comment

I'd love to know what you think, so please comment!

Popular posts from this blog

The Four Ages of Poetry

Dewey Readathon post

Howl's Moving Castle