Outwitting History (Paperback)

The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books

By Aaron Lansky

Algonquin Books, 9781565125131, 328pp.

Publication Date: September 2, 2005

Other Editions of This Title:
Hardcover (10/5/2004)

List Price: 15.95*
* Individual store prices may vary.


“Incredible . . . Inspiring . . . Important.” —Library Journal, starred review

“A marvelous yarn, loaded with near-calamitous adventures and characters as memorable as Singer creations.” —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.” —The Boston Globe

“Every now and again a book with near-universal appeal comes along: Outwitting History is just such a book.” —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 future—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 Notable Book

About the Author

Aaron Lansky is the founder and president of the Yiddish Book Center (www.yiddishbookcenter.org) in Amherst, Massachusetts. The recipient of a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, he has helped fuel the renaissance of Jewish literature in this country. He lives with his family in western Massachusetts.

Praise For Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books

"A marvelous yarn, loaded with near-calamitous adventures and characters as memorable as Singer creations."
New York Post

Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com

  1. The humorous scene that follows lunch at the Garden Cafeteria high­lights the central theme of difference and similarity developed throughout the book. How does difference yield to common cause at the physical level and the emotional level in this vignette?
  2. . Characters in this story are dressed in particular and significant ways. How do the clothes help us to understand people, priorities, and cul­tures in Outwitting History?
  3. What do books mean to Lansky and to the people who donate them? Why did books take on such special importance for Jewish immigrants in America? Do books bear meaning in your family or cultural history?
  4. Why did so many older Jews consider their Yiddish books their yerushe or "inheritance"? How is this concept of inheritance different from or similar to your own?
  5. The differences of the Hebrew and Aramaic books and that of the Yid­dish books are those of classical and popular culture, of high and low art. How do those distinctions play out in the book? How do other dis­tinctions between high and low culture affect your life?
  6. Discuss some of the ways the next generation considered themselves to be "unlike" their immigrant grandparents. Is it unusual to find chil­dren more interested in the generation of their grandparents than that of their parents?
  7. Lansky describes the National Yiddish Book Center as a "home" for Yiddish books. Why did these books need a "home"? What motivated Lansky's choice of Amherst, Massachusetts for the National Yiddish Book Center?
  8. What opposition to a National Yiddish Book Center did Lansky encounter and have to overcome? What were the political and fiscal realities with which he grappled?
  9. What does Lansky mean when he describes the Canadian immigration experience as a "mosaic" rather than a melting pot? How did American Jewish culture and Canadian Jewish culture develop differently?
  10. Who is your favorite hero or what is your favorite vignette from the book? How does this personal story fit into the larger historical context?
  11. In the end, do you think Yiddish "outwits" history? Why or why not?