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Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books Paperback – September 2, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Lansky’s quarter-century quest not only helped keep Yiddish literature from slipping into history, but also provided him with plenty of terrific material for his first book. Granted, a story about collecting old volumes in an obscure language initially sounds less than thrilling. But thanks to Lansky’s storytelling skills, this memoir lives up to the "amazing adventures" advertised in its title; it’s quickly clear why he’s been dubbed "the Yiddish Indiana Jones" and "the Otto Schindler of Yiddish literature." Lansky’s recounting of his personal mission may come off as self-aggrandizing to a few readers. But most will likely view the book as a great tale filled with memorable anecdotes and a rich cast of characters who reflect the endangered culture they’re trying to save.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 328 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books; First paperback edn. edition (September 2, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1565125134
  • ISBN-13: 978-1565125131
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (79 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #214,145 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

51 of 53 people found the following review helpful By PennsylvaniaMartha on October 1, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I got this book just yesterday and am almost finished with it already -- it's that compelling. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll meet truly unforgettable characters. You might even end up yearning to learn Yiddish! Most of all, you will feel immense gratitude for the hugely important, but at the time undervalued, work started by this young man back in 1980 to rescue the writings, the vital lifeblood, of an incredibly rich, but dying, culture. I am not Jewish, but I do recommend this book to Jewish people who want to see close up what is being done to recapture missing parts of their history. I also recommend it to anyone else who, like myself, feels enriched by the contributions of the Yiddish culture to our lives, and who wants to read an entertaining saga of how that culture, through the efforts of Lansky and his friends and benefactors, will now never be forgotten. And it was a near thing.

Even for those who are already familiar with and excited by Mr. Lansky's project, which after all has received a fair amount of publicity over the years, I still highly recommend this book to fill in the details and bring you even greater appreciation of his efforts. And for those who know nothing about it, and even for those who could care less what has been achieved, it is still a book worth reading, simply as a testament to the immense power of an ordinary person's single-minded passion, dogged persistence and sheer hard work, when it is lived out year after year after year. It's incredibly inspiring to see the magnitude of what this young man and his friends achieved against all odds, and it decisively slams the door on that strength-sapping thought, "But what good can the efforts of one person do?" So read! Enjoy!
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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful By takingadayoff TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 31, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Outwitting History works well on several different levels. Judging from some of the other reviews here, if you've ever studied or spoken Yiddish, or know people who do, you'll find this story interesting.

But if, like me, you don't know any Yiddish other than schmaltz and oy ve, and you aren't even Jewish, you can still enjoy Lansky's tale of saving hundreds of thousands of books and helping to preserve the history of what may be a dying language.

As a college student, Lansky started salvaging Yiddish books that were being discarded. As word got around that someone was willing to shlep old books away, he became inundated with people cleaning out their libraries and libraries who couldn't use the books any longer. Lansky nudged a couple of friends to help him and it turned into a full time job, taking his unreliable pickup truck all over the East Coast and beyond to pick up cartons of books at all hours.

Often when Lansky and his helpers arrived, there was a smorgasbord of food waiting for them and the person giving away the books usually had some tales to tell about how they acquired the books, or about what it was like to be Jewish immigrants in New York sixty or seventy years ago. In exchange for the books, Lansky and his friends got an education in a fascinating slice of American twentieth century history.

After some twenty-five years of book salvaging, Lansky has a million and a half volumes stored in his National Yiddish Book Center. Although Yiddish is no longer the first language of many, thanks in part to Lansky, many people are rediscovering its literature and culture.
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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Thoreau book man on September 6, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This is a superb book. I received it as an unexpected gift and started reading it without any expectations, but almost immediately was hooked. I am a longtime bibliophile and normally do focus on books and collecting and thought I have read about and studied everything about books and am therefore somewhat jaded, but in this fascinating story the author, the individuals, and the people as a whole captivated me enormously.

To summarize, Aaron Lansky as a young student decides to help save a vanishing literature by collecting as many Yiddish books as he can. He then uses his vast enthusiasm, knowledge and energy to accomplish his most worthy goal. Scouring the country, he meets many elderly people with old books. But he mostly tells their stories which he learns in kitchens over ethnic food - every book comes with a story and some `nosh'. These people all have had compelling, human, tragic, funny and enchanting lives. And the Yiddish literature also comes through in his prose. He covers the general history of Yiddish language and literature in a very un-painful and fascinating way. Yiddish was regarded by intelligentsia as `common' and so the literature was not prized the way authentic Hebrew texts were; in addition Yiddish was a product of the Diaspora and symbolic of subjugation and ancient deprivations. Thus in the later 20th century, most of these books were lightly regarded and often discarded. When Mr. Lansky began his quest these vibrant other-worldly books were in danger of being lost. Although most modern readers only know of Nobel prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer, there were equally talented authors in all fields of literature who wrote in this lost language of a lost world.
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