Sasha Abramsky is one of our most deeply human writers. His work on poverty in America, on crime, punishment and incarceration, and most recently on the vast and damning implications of Donald Trump’s success in the 2016 presidential election, reminds us that the personal is political, and vice versa. The House of Twenty-Thousand Books is perhaps his own most deeply personal work. It’s a gorgeous weave of memoir, family history, intellectual history and throughout, a tribute to the resilience and intellect of his grandfather, Chimen Abramsky. “Over the decades,” Abramsky writes, “Chimen had become so addicted to the printed page, to the texture of his books, to the feel of old manuscripts, and to the material contained within his written correspondence, that he ended up surrounding himself with a wall of words.”
At the time of his death, Chimen Abramsky owned remarkable holdings in both socialist writing and Judaica. Of the books of Judaica, “Chimen’s colleague Mark Geller, in internal correspondence with the university’s provost, wrote that they made up “probably the best Jewish History library in Europe.” This was on the occasion of University College London purchasing 7,000 items from him in the 1980s.
The book deals with the many consolations and implications of living with that wall of words. We see titanic figures like Isaiah Berlin and Eric Hobshawn visiting, but there’s a well-calibrated balance here between the names and impact of the greats on Chimen’s life and the lasting impact of events like his break with his father, a deeply respected rabbi who did time in a Siberian labor camp for religious proselytizing. Also critical was his embrace and then rejection of communist politics, among other personal and intellectual course changes. “For Chimen, Maimonides was the lodestar, one of the great philosophers out of whose ideas modernity could emerge,” Abramsky writes in one of numerous passages tracing his grandfather’s intellectual development. It’s a single brushstroke in a remarkable portrait, one that reminds us that even formidable minds require wellsprings to which they return in difficult times. And for all the admiration Abramsky feels for his grandfather, it’s a loving book but not hagiographic; for instance, we learn that “Chimen himself was not a particularly good storyteller – he frequently gave away the punch line of humorous anecdotes too early or, with more serious stories, got bogged down in too many details.” The organization of his great library is haphazard at best (see the wonderful anecdote from one of Sasha Abramsky’s cousins’ youth about their grandfather tunneling through the seemingly uncharted mass of stuff to a destination the rest of them never saw).
It was during the week before the election that Sasha Abramsky answered my two questions. I read a cautious optimism in his responses, but there was also the sense of a serious reckoning with the possible dark days to come if the election played out differently than expected. His grandfather’s books “provided protection from the madness of the world outside – or, at the very least, a road map for navigating the chaos.” I’d suggest that’s what the younger Abramsky is working at now, for himself and the rest of us – the creation of a road map for navigating the chaos to come. He can’t author a truly comprehensive map all by his lonesome, but his work describes certain precincts, diagnoses their ills and predicts their fates with real insight and empathy. I haven’t spoken with him since November 8, but I’ll be keeping tabs on his work. We need it now more than ever.
Here’s what he was reading as of late October. I can only imagine recent events have added to the list:
Regarding my reading habits, I tend to read fairly voraciously across a range of genres — and I generally have several books going simultaneously.
I’m in the process of writing a book about what we fear and why, and how it impacts our political choices, as well as many other aspects of our daily lives. To that end, I have been reading many books by anthropologists, economists, sociologists, and psychologists about how individuals and cultures choose what sorts of things to really fear, and to what purpose. I have also been reading many books and academic papers by neuroscientists about different parts of the brain, and different chemical and nervous system responses to threats and to fear.
As for more general-interest reading, I spent much of the past week reading Eduardo Galleano’s collection of essays “We Say No,” about the moral imperatives of understanding social and historical inequities and injustices, and about the ways individuals can resist unjust systems.
As a completely random book, I picked up on a dollar stall a collection of essays, titled “Letters to the Valley,” about farming and connection to the land, by a writer and California farmer named David Mas Masumoto. It is delightfully diverting, and is helping me to take my mind off of the extraordinarily nerve-wracking election — as you may have seen, I have spent much of the last year writing for the Nation (in the US), Haaretz (in Israel) and the New Statesman (in the UK) about the perils of Trump-ism and what I see as the emergence of a form of politics with distinct strains of fascism. As I’m writing and thinking so much about that, it’s nice every so often to step away from the fray and read about something totally different.
My daughter has been reading many of the novels (sci-fi and other) by Octavia Butler. She asked me if I would read some, so I am now dipping into some Butler novels.
Other books that I have read in the last few months include the Karl Ove Knausgaard series “My Struggle,” the Julian Barnes book, about Shostakovich, titled “The Noise of Time;” and several Bohumil Hrabal novels, including “Too Loud a Solitude.” I also read Adam Hoshchild’s book on the Spanish Civil War, “Spain in Our Hearts,” a book on the Mitford sisters, “The Six,” by Laura Thompson, and Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history book “Chernobyl.”
On my list of books to soon read: volumes 4-6 of Churchill’s history of World War Two; Luc Sante’s The Other Paris; Andrew Cooper’s book “The Fall of Heaven” on the last days of the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran; and Edward Rutherford’s “New York: The Novel.”
I hope this answers both what I’m reading and why: As you can see, I tend to read eclectically, seeking to fulfill whatever intellectual or cultural itch has my attention at any given moment. I read to learn, but also to relax; to explore new worlds, and to introduce myself to places and people who, for various reasons, intrigue me…
As for what I’m currently working on: many articles on politics and on social justice themes, for the Nation and other magazines; and, as I mentioned earlier, a book, to be published in the fall of 2017 by Nation Books, on how our understanding of fear shapes so many of the fundamental decisions we make in life.