Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Outwitting history

I have just finished reading a most interesting book, Outwitting History, by Aaron Lansky. The book tells the story of the author and his adventures to rescue Yiddish language books. He now surrounds himself with over one and a half million Yiddish books at the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts.

A friend gave me this book for Christmas because she hears me tell the story over and over about a librarian we had at Regis University here in Denver who decided one day to throw out all books which had not been taken out in 20 years. Mishoogenah. Shelf space, the library needed more shelf space, already. Does this story sound like the opening of a story by Isaac Beshevis Singer?

I dumpster dove in between my classes and students would often help me cart books down to my office at the far eastern end of Loyola Hall. The librarian would laugh and point at me from his perch on the second floor of the library, laughing at my feeble attempts to save the texts. I had so many books piled in my office that the facilities manager for the building said I did not need insulation in my cold room the windows of which often froze on the inside in winter’s bitter chill. Outside my office window I could see a small hare which lept trembling through the frozen grass.

Among the items I rescued were copies of Latin and Greek classics; early French editions of Jesuit theological texts; lots of Spanish books; and many others which I can’t list here as I don’t want to make this blog too long. One day I passed the library and saw about 200 feet of books lined up like good soldiers in front of the library. What books are those I inquired of a librarian? Those are the chronicles of the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, at least 150 books. I called libraries, colleges, history professors and many others looking for a home for these important items. These history texts would now fit in with Dr. Dan Clayton’s, Second World War research and history projects. No one wanted the books, so the high school students, on campus at that time, came over removed all the covers and the high school tossed the shivering texts denuded of their bindings into a big truck and took the books to Friedman Paper Company downtown for recycling.

Fr. Jim Guyer, S. J., Regis history Professor, told me he rescued two tomes which were printed by Jesuits in Japan in the 18th century. He shows them to his Asian History classes regularly. I still have quite a few of these reprieved books snatched from the dumpster at Regis. I believe we have a librarian now who likes books and will not throw them out.

I remember Vartan Gregorian, former head of the New York Public Library, telling a conference of librarians in Denver that when he became head of the NY Public Library that librarians came to him one day saying they needed more shelf space. There they go again, I thought. They suggested throwing out all the old telephone books from Eastern Europe which graced shelves. He saved them from the dumpster thinking someday they may be needed. “Un ver vet ibermishn gele bleter. And who will turn these yellowed pages?” Today, these old phone books are viewed by people whose relatives and the lives and memories of them were erased forever in the holocaust of WWII, that’s who. The old phone books show the street on which their families lived in Europe.

Some people think I am a bit eccentric to check the dumpsters near our Denver Public Libraries. I still check the dumpsters at Regis too. The Regis librarian moved on to another college. You too can check library dumpsters and let me know what you find. I wonder if we could call that auditing the books or simply outwitting history right here in Denver.

So it’s a great story that Lansky’s tells in his book about saving books and a language everyone thought would perish. It’s “geshmak, delectable” as the cover says. Yiddish is experience a bit of a renaissance. The University of Denver offers several classes in Yiddish. Let me know what you think about Outwitting History.

Final thought: One day our Dean, Bill Hynes happened to be in my office. He saw all the books lining my floors and walls. He did not see me behind all the books on my desk. He said, and I think fondly, “That Dennis Gallagher, he thinks every book is a moral obligation.” And I do. And more than that, I add a line from the book: “Di bikher zenen geven lebedike nefoshes. The books were living souls.”

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