January 5, 2010
Sometimes a book comes along just at the right time in your life for you to read it and truly appreciate it. For me, Aaron Lansky’s 2005 semi-autobiographical project, ‘Outwitting History,’ was one such volume. The book’s tagline, ‘how a young man rescued a million books and saved a vanishing civilization,’ concisely sums up the events described within.
In this book, Lansky details his life’s work. At university, Lansky’s studies required a heavy reliance upon Yiddish literature, of which there was seemingly none about. Informed by the experts at the time that possibly only 70,000 Yiddish books still existed, Lansky supported by a motley-crew of fellow students and associates, set out to salvage what remained of a once flourishing Yiddish culture. Twenty-five years later and Aaron Lansky is responsible for the preservation of over a million and half books.
This book is fantastic because it is not simply a catalogue of how Lansky managed to build up his organization. Instead, Lansky details the various characters he meets along the way with remarkable charm and respect. The book is a tale woven of many stories, not only the story of the mission but the stories of those whom Lansky encounters upon his journeys. Furthermore, there are the stories within the books themselves and the stories told by teachers and friends that serve to make Lansky a hero to an older American Yiddish community.
The book also maintains a delightful sense of humour. Early on, Lansky and the friend whom he has co-opted into helping him ferry books about find themselves collecting the entire literary collection of several dozen elderly Yiddish couples from an old tenement block. As every book is handed to the young scholars, the giver regails them with the history of the volume, the entire process takes one or two days in total and on subsequent visits they decide to bring a third person. Two of them to ‘schlep’ the boxes of books, whilst the third makes conversation with the donator and hoovers up the inevitable plates of latkes, kenedlach and kugel that seem to appear whenever the group arrive to pick up books. Another delightful character is the old Charedi man who owns a bookshop which contains an entire floor of abandoned Yiddish books. The man, who himself regards the books as ‘trayfe,’ is seemingly keen to get rid of them yet after several years of visits by Lansky still utters the same response, ‘Come back after Yontef.’
This is a book for those who like to look at history from the bottom up. Through his amalgamation of personal stories, tales of courage, luck and heroism, Aaron Lansky builds a coherent picture of a culture in transition. The Yiddish world undoubtably owes a lot to this secular young man for whom a student project came to dominate his whole life. Anybody interested in the little moments that make up history would enjoy this charming and intelligent story of a valuable life’s work.