Monday, September 5, 2011

Book Review: Outwitting History by Aaron Lansky

I stumbled upon Aaron Lansky's Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books at a thrift store; I'd never heard of it before, but the title caught my attention and the blurb on the back sealed it for me. Even though I don't know the first thing about Yiddish (I can spell yarmulke, which is apparently more than most Irish Catholics can say), and even though I have the pretty common bias that leads to my spending my pleasure reading on the histories and stories of people like myself and like my ancestors - the Irish, the Italians, the New Yorkers, the Catholics - as a historian and a bibliophile, I couldn't pass up a book about the rescue of 1,500,000 books.

Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books I wasn't disappointed. Even as someone who's never so much as seen The Fiddler on the Roof, I found the story of the rescue of Yiddish literature to be touching and profoundly moving. I cried more than once. I learned a lot, too. I picked up the story assuming that Lansky was setting out to save rare, priceless, historic books, and learned that he had much more inclusive standards of what was worthy of saving then I did. He aimed to save all the books - the entirety of Yiddish literature. The story begins with the author, a graduate student, and a rag-tag team of friends and volunteers salvaging books from dumpsters, and ends with the founding of the Yiddish Book Center and the digitization of the entirety of extant Yiddish Literature.

The book is full of funny, touching, stories about Lansky's encounters with the elderly Jewish people who donated the books of their youth, and, more than that, passed on their culture with them. Although I'm sure that the book would be particularly interesting to readers with Jewish heritage, it's a story that would fascinate anyone with an interest in books, culture, literature, or history.

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