There is no sound on earth like that of a quiet man, a dignified man, exploding in primal grief. Nothing compares to it—not fingernails scraping on a blackboard, not the whir of a dental drill through enamel. Nothing. It is the howl of absolute horror, a keening black hole of noise that sucks in everything else. It pulls you into the abyss—extraordinary, out of character, it brooks no dissent. This, the sound announces, is about forever.
I heard this noise as I cradled the phone to my left ear in March 2010. I was at home in Sacramento, California, perched desolate on a sofa in the TV room, my wife and children in another room. Six thousand miles away, my father was sitting next to his father’s body at my grandfather’s north London home at 5 Hillway, in Highgate. A few minutes earlier, Chimen Abramsky had finally died. Of what? Old age? He was 93 years old. Complications from Parkinson’s disease? He had been deteriorating for years, a frail, deaf old man, a widower increasingly locked, stony-faced, into a broken, frozen body. Or the aftermath of a horrifying series of late-life illnesses and infections, each of which in and of itself ought to have killed him? In the end, the cause didn’t really matter. What mattered was that the last of my grandparents had died. The man who had surrounded himself with tens of thousands of wondrously rare books, bought over the better part of a century, had disappeared—everything that made him him replaced with the waxen, impersonal stillness of death.
As I started to weep, part of me floated up above the scene and, looking down, wondered why I was so shocked. After all, I had had plenty of time to practice my grief: Chimen’s decline had been slow, his final months painful and humiliating, every phone call to my parents or siblings begun with an update on his tenuous hold on life. He had become, during those last few years, a coda to his own story.
* * *
In the 17th century, René Descartes had famously concluded, “I think, therefore I am.” For much of Chimen’s life, as he methodically constructed his House of Books, the reverse held true: He was, and therefore he thought—had he not thought, read, analyzed the world around him, and the history whence that world grew, he would have been a lost soul. He was, after all, never very good at twiddling his thumbs. But in his 90s, sick, deaf, and unable to leave his house to go on walks, he became a prisoner; his mind was locked in his failing body, and that body was cloistered away in his House of Books. Bit by bit, the world closed in on him. The house that had once served as one of left-wing London’s great salons, and which still contained one of England’s most important private libraries, now became utterly claustrophobic. The home that had sparkled with intellectual life when I visited it as a child became a little frightening, decrepit, a place I took my own children to out of obligation rather than joy. Animated conversation was replaced by the long silences of deaf old age; the bustle of a crowded kitchen and a gaggle of diners and overnight guests gave away to the stillness of Parkinson’s.
Then the Cartesian equation righted itself: Seeking to maintain a hold on life, on sanity, Chimen became even more obsessed with the world of books he had created for himself. Like a man who pinches himself to make sure he still has feeling, Chimen read to reassure himself that he was still alive. He thought, therefore he was. For years, as he declined, his ability to think sustained him; he clung to his extraordinary intellectual facilities, to his near-photographic powers of recall.
The atheist third son of a famous rabbi, Yehezkel Abramsky, who in 1956 had won the first Israel Prize for rabbinic literature; the grandson of another famous rabbi, Moshe Nahum Jerusalimsky; and the great-grandson of yet a third renowned rabbi, Yaakov David Willowski, Chimen was like a character out of an Isaac Bashevis Singer story, or an antiquarian out of a Dickens novel, or an eccentric 18th-century salon host—or, more accurately, a chimera of them all. It was impossible to pigeonhole him; too many stories flowed through his person simultaneously.
While his father was head of London’s Beth Din, the chief religious court for Jews in Britain, Chimen was a leading member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and ran, with my grandmother Miriam (known to us grandchildren as “Mimi”), a Jewish bookstore and publishing house named Shapiro, Valentine & Co., around the corner from Yehezkel’s office. Later on, he became an outspoken critic of the Soviet Union and came to count the liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin among his closest friends and champions. Lacking a university degree, Chimen nevertheless, in middle age, was acknowledged as one of the world’s great experts in both socialist history and Jewish history. After decades buying and selling books for a living, he spent the latter part of his career as an academic, first lecturing on Marxism at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and then as chair of the Hebrew and Jewish Studies Department at University College London. (He also spent time as a visiting professor at Brandeis and Stanford.) Rounding out his career, Chimen became a leading consultant on manuscripts for Sotheby’s auction house.
He was, across all these incarnations, one of England’s most extraordinary book collectors and one of the great letter writers of his age, penning missives in English, Hebrew, Russian, and Yiddish, sometimes as many as 10 or even 20 in a day, to a vast array of acquaintances. Over the decades, Chimen had become so addicted to the printed page, to the texture of books, to the feel of old manuscripts, and to the material contained in his written correspondence that he ended up surrounding himself with walls of words. They provided protection from the madness of the world outside—or, at the very least, a road map for navigating the chaos.
By the end of his life, every single room in the house, except the bathroom and kitchen, was lined from floor to ceiling with shelves double-stacked with books, with only a few bare spots left in which paintings and photographs hung. If you pulled a few bricks out of the wall of books, you found a second, hidden wall behind it. And when the shelves were filled, first the floors and then the tables succumbed to great, twisting piles of tomes. In a home that remained largely unrenovated during the 66 years Chimen inhabited it, becoming more dilapidated with each passing year, ideas were the mortar holding his biblio-bricks together: notions of progress, theories of history, understandings of civility and culture, explanations of how and why great cultures and civilizations decline.
Hillway, as we called the house where he and Miriam lived, held two libraries. The first was Chimen’s socialist collection, the second his Judaica volumes. The Judaica collection, even after 5,000 books and 2,000 offprints had been removed in the 1980s to join other volumes in a specially endowed section of the library at University College London, was utterly comprehensive, detailing every conceivable aspect of Jewish life over the centuries. Of the 7,000 items purchased by the university, Chimen’s colleague Mark Geller, in internal correspondence with the university’s provost, wrote that they made up “probably the best Jewish History library in Europe.” The socialist collection was in all likelihood the most complete privately owned collection of 18th-, 19th-, and early-20th-century socialist literature anywhere in the world. Certainly, it was the most complete collection of its kind in Britain.
I do not think anyone ever counted the number of books in the house, although Chimen had made partial efforts over the years to catalog his collection, and various book experts spent weeks studying it after he died. Looking at the shelves, I estimated that there were probably close to 20,000 volumes in the house at the time of Chimen’s death. My father believed it was more like 15,000.
Whatever the exact number of books at Hillway, it was staggering—and what made it even more so was their quality. Chimen did not simply aim for numbers; he collected books and editions that were extraordinarily hard to find. They were the stuff of rebirth, ways to bring vanished pasts to life, preserving the memories and ideas of men and women now long dead, their worlds as vanished as their voices, their smiles, their bodies. Inside Hillway, one could embark on journeys into that past, to see the fighters of 1848 take to the streets in Vienna or Berlin or London itself; to witness the Paris Communards on the barricades; to visit the Russian revolutionaries in Petrograd in October 1917, or the displaced Yiddish-language journalists and theater impresarios who, a century earlier, had printed East End newspapers with such whimsical names as Der Poylisher Yidl and entertained homesick immigrants.
* * *
My earliest memory of Hillway is not one of entry, of coming up the garden path and through the red front door, but rather of the citadel: Chimen and Miriam’s bedroom.
I was 3 years old, old enough to be taken to a party at University College London, where Chimen was then chair of the Hebrew and Jewish Studies Department. After that party, Chimen brought me back to Hillway, where Mimi cooked us dinner. At some point that evening, thick fog rolled in and brought traffic to a standstill. Chimen tried to get me home to my parents’ house, 12 miles away in West London, and failed. He was an appalling driver at the best of times, and the fog simply overwhelmed him. He turned around and, at a snail’s pace, brought me back to Hillway. I screamed bloody murder that night. Lying between Mimi and Chimen in their musty old bedroom, surrounded by so many books they were impossible to count, I sobbed for hours.
Books cast strange shadows in a bedroom. Crammed next to one another, the varied colors and textures of the spines reflect and absorb light in different ways. Chimen and Mimi’s bedroom had one little window, grimy with soot. If you pushed it hard, it opened outward, onto a view of the back garden and, behind that, the tall spire of a church. To the right of the window were piles of books and papers and a series of metal filing cabinets. To the left was a tiny wardrobe where Chimen’s clothes hung, as well as a small chest of drawers for my grandparents’ underwear and shirts. Next to that, along the wall facing the bed, was a huge old wooden rolltop desk, every inch covered with ancient books, handwritten correspondence, and a vast array of crumbling, antiquated documents. Above the desk were wooden bookshelves bracketed into the wall and sagging with the weight of photograph albums, books dating back to the 18th century, and old newspapers.
Upon those shelves, and in waterproof plastic bags atop more shelves in the upstairs hallway, was a collection of William Morris books and manuscripts, including the original woodcut for Morris’s News From Nowhere, and a complete set of Commonweal newspapers that Morris had both published and, in this case, owned. It was, Chimen asserted proudly and perhaps a touch bombastically, more important than the Morris collection owned by the British Library.
On the other side of the desk was the bedroom door. Down the far wall were more bookshelves, these books inside sturdy cabinets with glass doors. Behind the doors, which were not in my memory locked, were hundreds of the rarest socialist books and manuscripts in the world: books with Marx’s handwritten notes; volumes annotated by Lenin; treatises by Trotsky and by Rosa Luxemburg (including the typed manuscript of her doctoral thesis); original documents from the revolutionary Chartist movement of the 1830s and ’40s.
Chimen’s greatest intellectual joy was his ability to find and purchase rare books. Part of that joy lay in what he knew he would find between the covers; he had the passions of a true historian, and he was a connoisseur of little details. When he read a book, he read it not simply for the main text, but for the footnotes, the name of the publisher, and the location of the printer. All were clues; all helped him to understand the milieu in which the book was crafted. The differences between editions gave him a glimpse of the author’s evolving thoughts on a topic. The bibliographies enabled him to chart an intellectual odyssey.
But another part of the joy lay simply in the hunt. Chimen approached books with the tenderness of an artisan, cognizant of every little detail, every flaw, every unique blemish. “You can recognise the edition by the little woodcut on page 31 and also on the title page,” he wrote to his friend and fellow rare-books collector, the economist Piero Sraffa, on November 23, 1959, of a particularly rare 1888 edition of The Communist Manifesto. “In some copies there is also a misprint; after Fleet a comma follows and then the word St. There are many reprints but they have slightly different woodcuts. I could easily recognise it if I could see it.” To a layperson, the misprint would have been unnoticeable; to Chimen, it was as important as a misprinted old stamp might be to a philatelist.
Almost as important as the words were the ways the books felt and smelled. In turning the thick pages of old books or the crumbling, flaky pages of other volumes, one could imagine what Marx might have felt as he held a particular tome in his hands while researching his great tracts in the Reading Room of the British Museum. In the cloying smells released when ancient volumes were opened up, one could sniff out hints of lost printing techniques and papermaking methods, of inks manufactured centuries ago.
For an adult, to be invited into Chimen’s bedroom signified not romantic interest or coy flirtation, but academic trust. You had to earn your way in, show knowledge of, or love for, socialism and its lost worlds—or, at the very least, the esoteric universe of rare manuscript and book collecting. You had to appreciate the sensation of touching a book that Marx had once owned and commented on; or a document on which Lenin had scribbled marginal notes; or a book that Trotsky had carried with him into exile. You had to have the capacity to comprehend the absurdly low probability of Marx’s membership card for the First International not only surviving more than 100 years but finding its way to Hillway. Or of scrip printed by the 19th-century utopian socialist Robert Owen ending up in this room.
There was, recalled one friend, “a touch of the impresario” about Chimen, “a magician’s delight in surprising you. He’d trot off to a room and return with something and enjoy your reaction.” A cousin recalled being shown the room in 1978, about 20 years after he had first visited the house, and Chimen wistfully asking him where he thought these books would be in 100 years. “He wasn’t so much talking about where the books would be physically. He was talking about where the ideas would be.”
But the grandchildren didn’t have to earn an entrée to this citadel. It was simply where we slept at Hillway when we were too young and too scared to sleep alone. It smelled old and musty, and I was never quite sure whether that was the smell of the books or of my grandparents.
Sasha Abramsky, a regular contributor to The Nation, is the author of several books, including Breadline USA and The American Way of Poverty. This piece is adapted from The House of Twenty Thousand Books, published in the United States in September by New York Review Books.