002: Outwitting History by Aaron Lansky

by Gerard

002.075: Lansky, Aaron. Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin, 2005. 312 pp. ISBN 1-56512-513-4.

Dewey Construction:

  • 000: Computer Science, Information, and General Works
  • 002: The Book
  • +075: Museum services and collecting

In 1978, Aaron Lansky, a 23-year-old graduate student at McGill University was taking courses in Jewish history and literature when he and his classmates were unable to locate enough copies of Yiddish texts for their class. Much to their dismay, they learned that many Yiddish texts had been systematically thrown away or burned over the last fifty years. One colleague told them that no more than 70,000 Yiddish books in the entire world. So, he resolved to save them before it was too late.

Lansky’s autobiographical account of the creation and history of the National Yiddish Book Center in Outwitting History is all at once heart-breaking, gut-wrenching, and awe-inspiring. If die a little inside every time you see someone cavalierly throwing away an old book, then you will immediately identify with Lansky’s cause. Even as a non-Jew, I was deeply touched by the efforts he went through to save every Yiddish text he could.

In the early days, he and his co-founders would travel around the Eastern seaboard in rickety trucks, scouring old basements and warehouses for lost treasures, waiting to be catalogued and shipped to universities for better use. There are tales of rain-soaked brigades of volunteers and neighborhood children straining to carry thousands of volumes out of poverty-stricken buildings. There are tales of Lanksy and company travelling to newly liberated countries in Eastern Europe desperate to get back the literature that was once decimated by occupying forces. And there are tales of old Jewish couples constantly stuffing the travelers with myriad kosher foods and trying to ensure that both their books and their history remain intact, hoping against hope that the new generation of Yiddish scholars will preserve them and pass them along.

As evidenced by my rapid reading and review, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Anyone who despairs seeing whole bookshelves of material going to waste will find Lansky’s tale both exhilarating and exasperating. All in all, a very good book.