How a Young Man Rescued a Million Books and Saved a Vanishing Civilisation.
In 1980, an entire body of Jewish literature – the physical remnant of Yiddish culture – was on the verge of extinction. Precious volumes that had survived Hitler and Stalin were being passed down from older generations of Jewish immigrants to their non-Yiddish speaking children only to be discarded or destroyed. A twenty-three-year-old student named Aaron Lansky set out to rescue the world’s abandoned Yiddish books before it was too late.
Outwitting History is an adventure tale filled with unforgettable characters and told with the exhuberence of a man whose passion led him from house to house, country to country, collecting treasured books and heartfelt, often hilarious stories of the vibrant intellectual world these older Jews inhabited. Lansky and a team of young volunteers shlepped books from various attics and basements, demolition sites and dumpsters, while schmoozing with their owners, who insisted on feeding them a little nosh – gefilte fish, kasha, blintzes, latkes, kigel – before handing over, one book at a time, their beloved literary heritage.
When Lansky started out, experts believed that fewer than 70,000 Yiddish-language books still existed, he has now saved over 1.5 million books. As he takes us along on his groundbreaking journey, Lansky explores the roots of the Yiddish language and introduces us to the brilliant Yiddish writers – from Mendele to Sholem Aleichem to Issac Bashevis Singer – whose lasting cultural relevance is evident on every page.
Aaron Lansky shares the humour, tenacity and love for the written word that unites Jewish immigrants with everyone who cares about the future of great literature. And he enables us to see how an almost-lost culture is the bridge between the old world and the future.
“But now and again a quite unexpected book draws me in. The latest to trap me is ‘Outwitting History’ by Aaron Lansky… The book is the story of how he travelled the country saving a vast and rich culture which was about to be swallowed up… His visit to a Borscht belt hotel in the Catskills is worth the price alone. It’s very funny, very rewarding, and you don’t need to be Jewish to enjoy it.”
Simon Hoggart, ‘The Guardian’
“Outwitting History is the charming and compelling epic about how Lansky and a few volunteers saved Yiddish books from extinction. Lansky recounts his adventures on the road… Outwitting History inspires longing for an era that valued books over bookshelf space.”
“There’s just one word to describe the feat at the heart of Aaron Lansky’s enchanting book Outwitting History… chutzpah… His account of saving 1.5 million books (and counting) is an adventure story to delight bibliophiles.”
“Aaron Lansky’s book is an adventure story about the survival of Yiddish… fast-moving, funny account of his 25-year mission… a very exciting read… Lansky, horrified that the People of the Book are discarding theirs, becomes a missionary for a lost culture… A whistle-stop journey to the end of the Jewish world.”