Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Yiddish Books and More Yiddish Books

I just finished Aaron Lansky’s memoir, Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books. It’s an entertaining tale of a 20-year old graduate student who recognized that Yiddish culture was dying, and determined to help save it by rescuing the books that detailed its rich and varied culture. Lansky’s story includes many wonderful descriptions of old Jews once steeped in radical politics, journalism, and literature. He also reveals the richness of Yiddish culture and language, and points out how important it is to save a past.

My biggest complaint about the book is that Lansky is very veiled about his personal life. Unlike most memoirs, there is no transformation of the main character, no emotional growth that captures the reader. Lansky lived on practically nothing for 10 years until he won a McArthur Fellowship, then got married, and later suffered a brain hemorrhage. He mentions those life-changing moments in almost a perfunctory way.

I loved learning about Yiddish culture, loved knowing that Lansky and his group, the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts saved a culture once headed for extinction, but I still am not sure why he turned his life over to this mission.

Speaking of Western Massachusetts, a Northampton psychiatrist and his family are suing August Burroughs over his best-selling memoir Running with Scissors. In his book, Burroughs talks about going to live with a family he renamed the Finches, and now the family is claiming the author presented them as ''an unhygienic, foul, and mentally unstable cult engaged in bizarre and at times criminal activity."

I guess you can get too personal in a memoir.

The blog of Miss Snark, the anonymous literary agent, is a titillating place to lurk these days. She has invited readers to send in their query letters and novel excerpts. In her usual snarky tone, she analyzes these pitches for everyone to see. It’s am illuminating look at the way an agent thinks.

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