Inspiring Older Readers
The House of Twenty Thousand Books by Sasha Abramsky
There’s something deeply fascinating about the community of left-wing Jewish intellectuals who lived in London immediately before and after the Second World War. They were vital to the development of both the Labour and Communist Parties and played a crucial role in opposing Fascism at home and abroad. Sasha Abramsky’s portrait of his grandfather and grandmother – Chimen and Mimi Abramsky – is both a fond, even at times sentimental, tribute to his grandparents but also to that Jewish community who gravitated to Chimen’s house of twenty thousand books.
Chimen’s father was a well-known Rabbi in what is now Belarus but had been imprisoned in the late 1920s in a Siberian camp and then exiled to London. Despite his father’s experiences in Stalinist Russia, in the UK Chimen still developed strong Communist and atheist sympathies and married Miriam (Mimi) who was also a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Both became active in the campaigns of the time and Chimen began to collect and trade in rare Socialist literature and amassing an astonishing collection of his own in his unassuming house near Hampstead Heath.
As the fame of Chimen’s collection grew, intellectuals and academics were drawn to the house to spend time with the books and each other – in essence the house became a salon dedicated to radical thought.
Sasha Abramsky is Chimen’s grandson and so he is ideally placed to write a book like this, especially as he was given a free run of the house and books which was something not afforded to outsiders until they had earned that privilege over time. Sasha now lives in the USA, lecturing at the University of California and he also does some freelance journalism. Aspects of Chimen’s radicalism have stayed with Sasha and he is active in a more modest way himself in progressive causes but it’s also clear that despite his deep love for his grandparents he struggles to understand their commitment to Communism. Chimen and Mimi, like so many others, saw the Russian Communist revolution as both necessary and liberating. Also like many others they did end up reluctantly leaving the Communist Party once the full horrors of Stalin’s regime started to filter out and, for Mimi at least, the Hungarian Uprising and its repression was the final straw. Sasha though is puzzled by the fact that Chimen hung on much longer, refusing to give up his membership until much later seemingly despite all the evidence that the revolution had taken some devastatingly wrong turns.
In fact as is true with many converts, once Chimen took the decision to leave, it triggered a rapid retreat from his Communist beliefs that saw him do his best to expunge all evidence that he had ever defended such a brutal regime. Instead he threw himself back into Judaism and despite retaining what everyone saw as moderately progressive social views, he clearly found a sort of soft social democracy more to his taste in his later years.
Whilst much of the book was genuinely riveting and there was great stuff here about characters like Isaiah Berlin and Eric Hobsbawm, in truth I found it overlong and a touch repetitive. There was also quite a lot of information about disputes within the Jewish theological community which would be of great interest to some readers but which will leave others, like me, somewhat less than captivated.
Clearly the other star of this story is the house of books itself. Sasha Ambramsky uses the layout of the house, the rooms with their different collections, as a structure around which to build narrative and I think that works well. Each room triggers a discussion about the intellectual life of the house and its inhabitants and so it is brought to life as a character in its own right.
I personally could have done with more about the books themselves and about Chimen’s life as a book dealer and bookshop owner (he owned and operated the bookstore Shapiro, Valentine & Co.). Too often this aspect of the story takes second or third place behind the politics and the family history but I would have liked to know much more about the extraordinary original manuscripts (many by Marx) and first editions that passed through Chimen’s hands.
This lack of focus on the books left me wondering whether Sasha really understood Chimen’s book collection – I’m sure he did so intellectually but I wonder if he really understood it as a book collector would. In this house of books packed room by room, wall by wall, floor to ceiling with astonishing books of socialist and Jewish history we do, in fact, get to explore very little of the actual collection. When Sasha is asked what he’d like to take away as a keepsake of his grandfather’s collection after Chimen dies, he selects a run of Everyman classics. Nothing wrong with that you might think but it would have been nice to know why he went for these in a bit more detail rather than the somewhat casual reason he offers that these somehow reminded him most of his visits to the house because of where they were on the shelves.
But these are relatively minor criticisms. This is an often deeply fascinating portrait of an important but now lost world in which ideas and ideologies were forged and critically examined and it is through books like this that we can get a sense of the ferment of ideas that were being tossed around in the middle of the twentieth century.
Copies of the book can be easily obtained on line but you’ll probably struggle to find copies in your local Waterstones or independent store – and that’s a shame.