The Highgate home that hid twenty thousand books
- Credit: Polly Hancock
An ordinary house might have at most a few bookcases lined with an assortment of hard and paperbacks. So it’s hard to grasp the idea that an unassuming semi-detached home on Hillway, Highgate, once held more than 20,000 rare books, manuscripts and documents.
This was the lost world of a literary salon that journalist and writer Sasha Abramsky brings to life in his touching family memoir The House of Twenty Thousand Books.
Abramsky’s grandfather, Chimen, was one of London’s finest rare book dealers, first a Communist, then a liberal and a humanist, he loved both ideas and books.
If Chimen was the intellectual, his wife Miriam – who was said to resemble the actress Ingrid Bergman in her youth – was the hostess.
“They were a partnership,” Abramsky explains simply. “He provided the intellectual material, she provided the ability to generate a salon and get conversations going – they needed each other.”
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Their home was a focal point for left-wing intellectual Jewish life; a meeting place of refugees, exiles, immigrants, artists and historians.
Everyone from Sir Isaiah Berlin, the social and political theorist and philosopher, to Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm dined at their table.
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Did Abramsky, who had been visiting his grandparents’ house every weekend since he was three, understand how extraordinary their lives were?
“No!” he replies amusedly.
“When I was growing up, I thought all men were bald because my dad and my granddad had no hair and it was the same with the house – I thought all houses were filled with books.”
Filled with books is an understatement. Every room in the Abramskys’ humble home was overflowing with priceless manuscripts.
“Even their bedroom was piled high with Communist manifestos,” Abramsky recalls.
“There was a very small bed, a miniscule sooty window and the entire rest of the room was full of these incredibly rare books.
“It was just the strangest bedroom you could ever go into.”
Setting aside the literary treasure trove, Chimen sounds like a character.
His father, a famous rabbi, was arrested by Stalin’s secret police and exiled to five years of hard labour in Siberia. Chimen himself was 15 when they fled to London.
He then made his living as a rare book dealer for 70 years and ended his career as a professor of Hebrew and Jewish studies at UCL and a rare manuscripts expert for Sotheby’s.
“There’s a fine line between junk and antique, and Chimen could tell the difference,” Abramsky stresses.
“He never priced things to a round number – while other people would price something at £50 to £100, he would say, ‘This is worth £93.82,’ and people would believe him because he was so knowledgeable!
“It was like he was autistic except that he wasn’t.”
Despite having already written several prominent books on anything from Barack Obama to poverty in America, Abramsky’s wistful tone makes clear that The House of Twenty Thousand Books was a project close to his heart.
“Of all the things that I’ve ever written in my life, this was the one that obsessed me completely and utterly,” he admits. “It was hard to write and hard to finish.
“The minute I finished it, I just started sobbing because I had felt like they were alive as I was writing it.”
The 42-year-old, who was born in Chiswick, studied at Oxford and now lives in California. He is married with two children.
He hopes the book will serve as something of a legacy to his children – a way of immortalising the extraordinary lives of their great-grandparents whose former home is still inhabited by Abramsky’s cousin.
“Like a really long, complicated family tree,” Abramsky offers, laughing.
With both grandparents now sadly deceased, what has become of the thousands of books of Hillway?
Abramsky seems reluctant to answer but reveals that they have been sold off.
“They’re not a part of my story anymore, but they exist in my book.”
The House of Twenty Thousand Books by Sasha Abramsky, published by Halban Publishers, is available for £14.95