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Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books (2004)

by Aaron LANSKY

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
9883921,563 (4.36)147
History. Nonfiction. HTML:

"Incredible . . . Inspiring . . . Important." â??Library Journal, starred review
"A marvelous yarn, loaded with near-calamitous adventures and characters as memorable as Singer creations." â??The New York Post

"What began as a quixotic journey was also a picaresque romp, a detective story, a profound history lesson, and a poignant evocation of a bygone world." â??The Boston Globe
"Every now and again a book with near-universal appeal comes along: Outwitting History is just such a book." â??The Sunday Oregonian
As a twenty-three-year-old graduate student, Aaron Lansky set out to save the world's abandoned Yiddish books before it was too late. Today, more than a million books later, he has accomplished what has been called "the greatest cultural rescue effort in Jewish history." In Outwitting History, Lansky shares his adventures as well as the poignant and often laugh-out-loud stories he heard as he traveled the country collecting books. Introducing us to a dazzling array of writers, he shows us how an almost-lost culture is the bridge between the old world and the futureâ??and how the written word can unite everyone who believes in the power of great literature.
A Library Journal Best Book
A Massachusetts Book Award Winner in Nonfiction
An ALA Notabl
… (more)

  1. 104
    Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages by Mark Abley (lorax)
    lorax: There are two obvious ways to go from "Outwitting History"; the other recommendations cover a specific interest in Yiddish. For a general interest in linguistic preservation and revival, "Spoken Here" is a fascinating read, including a chapter on Yiddish.
  2. 00
    Essential Yiddish books : 1000 great works from the collection of the National Yiddish Book Center by Zachary M. Baker (gangleri)
  3. 00
    Songs for the Butcher's Daughter by Peter Manseau (SqueakyChu)
  4. 00
    The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe's Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance by Anders Rydell (sneuper)
    sneuper: Both books are about an effort of rescuing books from the hands of Nazi’s who want to destroy the heritage of the Jewish people.
  5. 00
    The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer (Sandydog1)
    Sandydog1: 'the same story, 'cept suburban Long Island isn't as "sporty" as Mali...
  6. 01
    Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods by Michael Wex (aces)
  7. 01
    History of the Yiddish Language: Volumes 1 and 2 (Yale Language) (v. 1 and v. 2) by Max Weinreich (bertilak)
  8. 01
    A Treasury of Yiddish Stories by Irving Howe (bertilak)
  9. 01
    The Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten (SqueakyChu)
    SqueakyChu: After learning about the slow disappearance of Yiddish, grab hold of this book and learn a some Yiddish words and their meanings. All is explained with grace and humor.
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» See also 147 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 39 (next | show all)
Update 11 April 2024.
I just read this for a second time for a bookgroup. I had to, it had been my nomination. As much as I liked it the first time, I might have liked it even more on this second reading. Lansky did a great job with his book rescue and he did a great job with this book. I just finished writing my own book about my father that I based on his memories that he wrote for me some years ago. My parents didn't speak Yiddish at home; they spoke Polish. We never went to synagogue, we didn't celebrate the high holidays -- we didn't even celebrate Chanukah and the only time we ever had a seder at our house (we always went to friends) my mother served shrimp on the salad. But I always knew we were Jewish. How can you not when all the family, except my parents, was murdered in the Holocaust? This time around I enjoyed the whole book again, from start to finish, but I found some of his comments at the end, of what it means to be Jewish, more meaningful.

This is the story of the rescue of a million Yiddish books. In the process of the rescue, Lansky met many fascinating and interesting people and ate some wonderful food, in great quantities. I laughed, I cried, and I learned quite a bit about my own, Jewish history and culture. I recommend the book for anyone who is interesting in books, culture, languages, modern Jewish history, deli food....
See my blog for more thoughts on the book:
http://beyondthepale-dvora.blogspot.com/2012/01/roots.html ( )
  dvoratreis | May 22, 2024 |
"Engaging first-person account of how some committed young people rescued from history’s dustbin more than a million books published in Yiddish.

In prose that sometimes lurches and jolts along like the overloaded rental trucks that the author and his merry band used to collect books, Lansky unfolds a tale of rare emotion and devotion. He was only 23, in 1980, when he made the decision to dedicate himself to the cause of saving books in Yiddish. He had begun studying the language while at Hampshire College and was shocked to discover that many libraries were discarding Yiddish works by the thousands because so few circulated. His account of his rescue efforts takes the form of an adventure story, related with a breathless and appealing Andy Hardy earnestness. The author and his companions pluck books from Dumpsters in the rain, from closing libraries, from damp garages and basements, from dour doubters, from aging Jews who surrender them like favorite children—with flowing tears, many tales, and much food. They make harrowing missions to Russia and Cuba. But it all pays off: Lanksy now oversees a huge enterprise comprising a state-of-the-art facility, the National Yiddish Book Center, and a membership of some 35,000 supporters. He is digitizing the volumes, virtually all of which were printed on paper whose acid content assures disintegration. The purpose of the Book Center is not to hoard but to distribute the volumes. It maintains a core collection but considers putting books into the hands of readers among its chief purposes, in addition to making sure key titles are in libraries where scholars can consult them. Lansky also chronicles the history of Yiddish, his fundraising efforts (considerably accelerated by a 1989 MacArthur genius grant), and his countless public appearances (including a funny episode at a Catskills resort).

A rollicking ride in company with a man who has performed an enormously important public service." www.kirkusreviews.com, A Kirkus Starred Review
  CDJLibrary | Dec 2, 2021 |
Gripping account of how one man's intellectual curiosity leads him, without obvious expectations of what he was getting into, to undertake a life's quest to preserve the Yiddish literature. He interrupted his schooling in Yiddish literature to take a year's leave to collect books because they were all but impossible to find, and never returned. It's true, I suppose, that life is what happens when we're making other plans, and that the biggest regrets of our lives will be not taking advantage of the opportunities that appear to do not only great things, but things we love with all our being.

The timeline in the book is a bit bumpy, but the major point is less to give a history than to evoke a sense of why the project was important, and worth the doing. On that level, the book succeeds brilliantly. ( )
  dono421846 | Feb 5, 2021 |
This is definitely one of the best books I have read this year. Once I picked it up, I had go on until I was finished. This is the story of Aaron Lansky and his quest to save Yiddish books. At a time when even most Jews had given Yiddish up as dead, Lansky had the vision to rescue the lost books of Yiddish and then place them in the hands of people who needed them. So, pulling up his bootstraps, with help from various people, and a lot of guts, he went around collecting books, leading to the eventual foundation of the National Yiddish Book Center.

The stories in the book vary from very moving to humorous. From digging books out of dumpsters to meeting with elderly Jews who passed their collections to him one book at a time, Lansky's adventures take him around the world. And all this before the Internet was around. We take for granted that you can digitize books now (and they do digitize books now), but back in the early 90s, the technology to do so was brand new, untried. We also get to see him travel from Africa to Europe and even Latin America and the Soviet Union. And yet, for all the books he saves, there are so many lost. And indeed, Yiddish still is a relatively small language, so to speak, and one that is endangered. But it is also a language of history, of culture, of memory, and one that a new generation now wishes to discover, or rediscover, as a way to get to know its heritage. So there is some hope. ]

In the process of reading the book, you also get some lessons in the history of Yiddish and a little lesson in world history as well. So it makes for a very good book to read. If you are a reader who likes to read about books, who likes a good tale, and a little history, then this is definitely a book for you. It may, as it did for me, make you wish you could go out and read some of the many works and authors that Lansky mentions in the book. Sadly, I can't read Yiddish, but I can hope maybe to get a hold of one of the new translations of Yiddish works the NYBC is putting out (it would be nicer if one day I could learn to actually read the language). In the meantime, get a hold of this book.

( )
  bloodravenlib | Aug 17, 2020 |
7 stars: Good

From the back cover: As a 23 year old graduate student, Aaron Lansky set out to save the world's abandoned Yiddish books before it was too late. Today, 25 years and 1 1/2 million books later, he has accomplished what has been called "the greatest cultural rescue effort in Jewish history." In "Outwitting History", Lansky shares his adventures as well as the poignant and often laugh out loud stories he heard as he traveled the country collecting books. Introducing us to a dazzling array of writers, he shows us how an almost lost culture is the bridge between the old world and the future--and how the written word can unite everyone who believes in the power of great literature.

---------------

I don't have a whole lot to add to the above. This book was different than I expected-- though I'm not certain why, as it does follow what is described above. I found I learned a fair amount about Yiddish and some details of Jewish cultural history I was not aware of. I am glad I read this, but ultimately didn't find anything stand out for a reread. ( )
  PokPok | May 12, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 39 (next | show all)
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LANSKY, AaronAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Guidall, GeorgeNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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for Gail
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The phone rang at midnight. That wasn't unusual. Older Jews often waited until the rates went down before phoning me about their Yiddish books.
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Sometimes it seemed that Yiddish was a Rorschach test: Young people, especially, saw in it what they wanted to see. For atheists it was Jewishness without religion; for feminists, Judaism free from patriarchy; for those uncomfortable with Israeli politics, nationalism without Zionism; for socialists, the voice of proletarian struggle; for more contemporary radicals, a shtokh to the establishment.
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History. Nonfiction. HTML:

"Incredible . . . Inspiring . . . Important." â??Library Journal, starred review
"A marvelous yarn, loaded with near-calamitous adventures and characters as memorable as Singer creations." â??The New York Post

"What began as a quixotic journey was also a picaresque romp, a detective story, a profound history lesson, and a poignant evocation of a bygone world." â??The Boston Globe
"Every now and again a book with near-universal appeal comes along: Outwitting History is just such a book." â??The Sunday Oregonian
As a twenty-three-year-old graduate student, Aaron Lansky set out to save the world's abandoned Yiddish books before it was too late. Today, more than a million books later, he has accomplished what has been called "the greatest cultural rescue effort in Jewish history." In Outwitting History, Lansky shares his adventures as well as the poignant and often laugh-out-loud stories he heard as he traveled the country collecting books. Introducing us to a dazzling array of writers, he shows us how an almost-lost culture is the bridge between the old world and the futureâ??and how the written word can unite everyone who believes in the power of great literature.
A Library Journal Best Book
A Massachusetts Book Award Winner in Nonfiction
An ALA Notabl

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Book description
Lansky was a 23-year-old graduate student in 1980 when he came up with an idea that would take over his life and change the face of Jewish literary culture: He wanted to save Yiddish books. With few resources save his passion and ironlike determination, Lansky and his fellow dreamers traveled from house to house, Dumpster to Dumpster saving Yiddish books wherever they could find them—eventually gathering an improbable 1.5 million volumes, from famous writers like Sholem Aleichem and I.B. Singer to one-of-a-kind Soviet prints. In his first book, Lansky charmingly describes his adventures as president and founder of the National Yiddish Book Center, which now has new headquarters at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. To Lansky, Yiddish literature represented an important piece of Jewish cultural history, a link to the past and a memory of a generation lost to the Holocaust. Lansky's account of salvaging books is both hilarious and moving, filled with Jewish humor, conversations with elderly Jewish immigrants for whom the books evoke memories of a faraway past, stories of desperate midnight rescues from rain-soaked Dumpsters, and touching accounts of Lansky's trips to what were once thriving Jewish communities in Europe. The book is a testimony to his love of Judaism and literature and his desire to make a difference in the world.
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