What I’m Reading: Writer Sasha Abramsky

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.”

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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.

What I’m Reading: Writer Paul Russell

Recently I mentioned Paul Russell’s novel Immaculate Blue as a book a lot of readers might have overlooked. That wasn’t a judgment I reached on the basis of sales figures, for instance – I’m not privy to that information – but the fact that the book didn’t show up in reviews in the New York Times, the Washington Post and so forth, the remaining big  (if somewhat diminished) outlets for book coverage.

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  • Photo of Paul Russell by Tuan Ching, via paulrussellwriter.com

The Salt Point made it into those Reviews, and I’d have imagined some value to continuity in revisiting the original review and the two books in tandem. Then again, I don’t get paid to run the book section of a major publication, to commission reviews, and so forth. All I know is that picking up with the four friends from The Salt Point strikes me as worthwhile in the same way it’s worthwhile to follow the results of Jay McInerney’s recently completed trilogy (or maybe there’s more to come – I’ve got no advance intel on that question). And understand, I liked the McInerney novels, flaws and all. I just don’t think Russell’s work catching up with past characters has to get the short shrift. It suggests to me something like Mark Merlis’s aside that his work has been studied in “the ghetto of the gay literature survey.”

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One outcome of that marginalization is that we get a writer like Russell, who’s been productive for years now, and who has received broader-based attention at times (see The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov), observing that, when reading neglected novels by gay writers from the 40s and 50s, he “feel[s] a kinship with these forgotten writers.” I don’t want to make too much of what was maybe an offhand comment, but it’s easy to see why Russell might feel like his work is less remarked upon than it deserves to be.

All that said, a look at what Paul Russell has been reading lately is a look at the intellectual life of a working writer. He teaches full-time at Vassar, and that places certain demands on his reading time. As you’ll see, though, he turns that to his advantage, uses it to feed his interests, and with any luck, finds a spark within his reading life to keep alive the writing he has to put aside during the semester. And while he suggested I might want to cut, rearrange, or otherwise shape his responses, they’re really worth reading in their entirety. Take it away, Paul Russell:

I can’t really answer the first question without also answering the second.  I’m midway through a semester of teaching, so much of what I’m reading these days is dictated by what I’m doing in the classroom.  I’m one of those highly inefficient teachers who insists on rereading everything before teaching it.  Thus, for this week I’ve reread Patricia Highsmith’s smart and lively 1952 lesbian novel The Price of Salt; three glittering, funny, heartbreaking stories by Katherine Mansfield—”Prelude,” “The Garden Party,” and “The Daughters of the Late Colonel”—and, for my James Joyce seminar, the gorgeous “Nausicaa” chapter from Ulysses.  Fortunately, I only teach books I like, so rereading them is almost  always a pleasure. 

 

I’m also doing an independent reading project this semester with a student on “Sex, Identity, and the Literature of AIDS.” We’re sort of inventing the reading list as we go along, and for some reason it’s turned into a mini-seminar on Derek Jarman:  his extraordinary final film Blue, made after he was stricken with AIDS-related blindness, a volume of his writing about the stark, magical garden he built by the sea at Dungeness, in the shadow of a nuclear power plant, and one of his several volumes of memoir, At Your Own Risk.  We admitted to each other in out meeting yesterday that we both have a kind of crush on Jarman.  His prose is so luminous, compassionate, transgressive, human… 

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In addition to regular schoolwork I’m pursuing two other reading projects:  one involves neglected gay novels from the 1940s and 50s (in part as preparation for a course I’m teaching in the spring).  I know there’s lots of contemporary work I should be reading, but I feel a kinship with these forgotten writers.  My latest foray has been Scotland’s Burning (1953), Nathaniel Burt‘s wistful, homoerotic, beautifully written tale set in a boys’ school in the American south—a little reminiscent of A Separate Peace or The Folded Leaf in its not-quite-closeted longings. Not a great novel, but an elegant, oddly satisfying piece of work.  Some of my great discoveries among these writers have been Fritz Peters (Finistere, Boyhood with Gurdjieff), Lonnie Coleman (Sam; The Southern Lady; The Golden Vanity, Mark), Harlan Cozad McIntosh (This Finer Shadow) and Charles Jackson (The Fall of Valor). 

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 – Photo via Valancourt Books

Finally, for the last several months a colleague and I have been exploring New Testament canon formation, reading through all the many gospels and epistles and revelations and other documents that never made it into the  New Testament proper (though some, like The Shepherd of Hermas and The Epistle of Barnabas were included in certain early codices).  We’ve also made our way through the gnostic texts from the Nag Hammadi library (standouts include The Secret Book of John and Thunder, The Perfect Wisdom), as well as Tertullian’s hilarious takedown of the gnostics in his Against the Valentinians.  My friend and I arrive at a local diner every Sunday morning loaded down with Bibles and other pedantic paraphernalia, and sit for three hours poring over arcana, no doubt making a spectacle of ourselves to the curious, but supernaturally well-tended to by our waitress who, it turns out in a weird bit of serendipity, is the niece of Maurice Sendak!  Why are we doing this? It all started when we realized neither of us knew anything about the ancient monophysite churches.  Well now we know, and so much more!

 

And all this while my new novel, The Two Angels Came to Sodom, which I’m 300 pages into, is on hold as I carefully try to keep that fragile egg warm and incubating, hoping against hope that when I finish teaching and return to the hatchery in June I won’t find it has expired in the meantime (something that has happened before!).