A Love Affair with Literature: The House of Twenty Thousand Books

Editor's Note:

Sasha Abramsky is a journalist and author whose work has appeared in The Nation and The American Prospect, among other publications. He is the author of The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives, and most recently The House of Twenty Thousand Books. He joins us to discuss a few books that capture the mind and massive library of his grandfather, Chimen Abramsky.

My grandfather, Chimen Abramsky, owned so many books that, sometimes, they seemed like permanent layers of the walls. They became something taken for granted, as much a part of the infrastructure of their suburban north London home as, say, the World War Two-era plumbing and the heavy living room armchairs.

But in truth, those books represented a decades-long love affair. Chimen was utterly obsessed by the written word, be it printed or handwritten, bound into volumes or contained within ancient political pamphlets. Over his long life, he built up a collection of tens of thousands of books and other documents, relating to his two primary areas of knowledge: Socialist history and Jewish history. He adored those texts, loved them with a passion that is hard to explain to someone who didn’t grow up having the power of The Word continually stamped upon their consciousness.

Chimen collected letters (from such figures as Chaim Weizmann, Ivan Turgenev, Isaiah Berlin, Harold Laski and Bertrand Russell) as well as Communist Manifestoes, and other Marx volumes — some annotated by Marx himself, by Lenin, Trotsky and other revolutionary luminaries; Kabbalistic texts as well as revolutionary newspapers and posters. Each room, centered around the works of intellectual lodestars such as Marx, Spinoza, Maimonides or Rashi, was an entry point into vanished worlds and vastly complex societal dreams.

Since Chimen’s death in 2010, I have worked on recreating, in book form, that extraordinary house, the presence of the books as well as of the people who would congregate there to eat, and to discuss and to debate the great issues of the age.

In my mind’s eye, some books simply vanish into the mass of paper and parchment and vellum stashed on the shelves. Others, however, stand out with startling clarity. They weren’t necessarily the most important, or the most valuable, books in his collection, but they were ones he was particularly proud of, and ones that, by extension, often he took off of his shelves to show me.

Enquiry Concerning Political JusticeI see, above the cluttered roll-top desk in Mimi and Chimen’s dark bedroom, a large, volume, with a dark, knobbly spine. It is William Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, the first great anarchist text, and, in its time, a book widely noted as being amongst the most important political contributions of the era. The book was published in England in 1793, during the high terrors of the French Revolution, and Chimen’s was (it almost goes without saying) a first edition. It was, in many ways, the forefather to the flood of socialist writings that helped shape the 19th and 20th century experiences.

News From NowhereThen there’s another William, this time William Morris, the great late-Victorian radical, wallpaper designer, and author. Chimen owned large numbers of original Morris documents, including the author’s woodcut of his utopian novel News From Nowhere. With a glint in his eye, Chimen would tell his audiences that he had a Morris collection to rival – perhaps, depending on his mood, even to best – that of the British Library. He kept them on bookshelves in his bedroom, and in waterproof plastic bags atop shelves high up on the walls of the upstairs hallway. The News From Nowhere was a beautiful volume, the pages crafted from handmade paper, the ink lush, the words sharp, alive. When I read the novel after Chimen died, I couldn’t help but think that Kelmscott Manor, Morris’s house, and a place that features in his novel, was, in many ways, a similar one to that of 5 Hillway.

Morris appealed to Chimen both aesthetically and politically. He was a tea-drinking revolutionary, an extremely cultured man, knowledgeable, fascinated by Marx and by the world-changing possibilities he saw in socialism. Chimen, physically diminutive, exquisitely cultured, also, at least during the first decades of his adult life, saw himself as a revolutionary. He was enthralled by the idea of class struggle, and, at auctions and in the shops of rare booksellers, collected as many documents as he could about these struggles.

Chimen’s own book on Marx, co-written by fellow historian Henry Collins, was titled Karl Marx and the First International. A thick volume, with an off-white cover, copies of which were kept on a bookshelf at arm’s reach from the marital bed, it had taken Chimen and Henry years to write. When it finally came out – a dense, heavily footnoted, historical text on the great internationalist organization that Marx had dreamed would propel Europe and the Americas into an epoch of proletarian revolutions – it received, perhaps to Chimen’s surprise, widespread acclaim in journals such as “The Economist” in the West, and was mentioned positively even in the Soviet Union – a country that, by the time the book was published, Chimen had grown utterly disillusioned with.

Yet despite his alienation from states that fashioned themselves as revolutionary, throughout the rest of his life he continued to build up his socialist collection. One of his crown jewels was a set of bound volumes containing within them thousands of original posters from the Paris Commune. He kept these volumes in the downstairs living room, and would, on occasion, take one or other of them from a shelf to show visitors. They were exquisite, detailed images embodying dreams and fears, the violence and passion of the barricades, and the mighty powers unleashed by the vengeful state against the communards.

But Chimen wasn’t always, or all, revolutionary. Another, equally important, part of his soul was fascinated by the traditions out of which he had emerged. His father, Yehezkel, was a famous rabbinic scholar, and on his mother’s side, too, Chimen came from a long line of eminent rabbis. Not religious himself, he was, nevertheless, one of the world’s most knowledgeable scholars on Jewish texts. And, by extension, he was fascinated by the Bible. In his upstairs front room were his religious texts, including a 1521 Bomberg Bible, gorgeously printed, in Venice, using techniques far, far in advance of those used by Gutenberg when he developed metal-type printing only seventy years earlier. On that Bible, one could still see words in the commentaries etched out by cautious Venetian censors of the day.

There were, of course, hundreds of other books that stood out in that vast collection. On different days, different books rise up in my thoughts and demand their due. Tomorrow, in all likelihood, I would write this essay differently, using different examples to explore my grandfather’s world. Perhaps I would linger on his first edition Spinozas and Descartes. Or maybe his early 16th century math treatises printed in the early Ottoman-era city still known as Constantinople. Yesterday, too, I would have ended up elsewhere. But that, I believe, is part of the joy of meandering through another’s intellectual world. It is a place of fluidity, a place where ideas emerge, collide, mingle, separate out again. It is a place of dreams – and dreams, in the waking, quickly become something different from what they were a moment earlier.