Friday, February 13, 2009

Outwitting History 

Aaron Lansky walked some dangerous ground in his Outwitting History. You might not expect a book about the Yiddish language, the nature of literature, the conflict between old and young, between Yiddish and Hebrew, and scenes set either in dusty warehouses full of brittle yellowing books or in apartments with multi-course meals perpetually cooking in Kosher kitchens to be suspenseful. But Lansky gives us plenty of races against time to save books from destruction, of desperate fundraising to scrape together the money for a U-Hauls, of angry landlords, of callous bystanders. And the only thing that keeps the drama from B level movie chase scenes is that Lansky doesn't always win, and when he does, he doesn't always win completely. The books aren't always saved The pluky heroes don't always win.

These exciting rescue scenes (yes, they're rescuing books, from rain, from burial, from decay or mold, from burning, and most often from landfills) are only part of the book. Maybe a third.

Another third is the history of Yiddish. Yiddish was predominantly a spoken language until the mid-1800's, when novelists and poets and historians and theologists began writing in the language that would reach the masses. Unfortunately, these books were first printed only after most printing houses had switched to paper made from wood pulp and acidic washes. Further, many of the books Lansky finds were printed on the thinnest, cheapest paper available. The books are crumbling to dust. Lansky takes the drastic step of digitizing the books. (It's a drastic step in my mind, because digitization can destroy the book. The spines are cut off so the pages can be fed, one by one, through copier. In Nicholson Baker's Double Fold, few books are rebound; they are pitched. In Lansky's book, the books that are digitized are"extras," meaning that three or four other copies exist, and he doesn't say how the cut pages are dealt with.). Lansky finds the funding to digitize the archives of the National Yiddish Book Center - 3.5 million pages and counting. Yiddish has the honor of being the first of the world's literature to be digitized, according to a Trivial Pursuit question.

The final third describes the role Yiddish plays today. It is an embarrassment to some. It is a cultural goldmine to others. While it is far from a dead language, Yiddish is no longer as universal as it was - Lansky tells of a conference on the development of Esperanto as a universal language that was held in Yiddish - the language that most of the participants had in common.

These thirds, by the way, are all intertwined and mushed together, The book does a startlingly good job of maintaining a character-driven narrative while incorporating all the history that it does. I did find it jarring sometimes trying to keep the years in order, as events are presented as narratives. But for me that was a minor flaw, and one that didn't present itself until close to the end.

I'm keeping this book. I admire this man. He went dumpster-diving for books.

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