Friday, September 29, 2006

Quixotic Missions: Rescuing the Written Word

On Wednesday night my husband went to a lecture by Aaron Lansky, founder of the National Yiddish Book Center, and author of Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books. Lansky's story really is amazing; I started reading his book last night, and stayed awake to read about how he and several helpers managed to pull over 4,000 Yiddish books from a dumpster in Manhattan during a rain storm where they had been dumped by the new owners of a building that had once housed a Yiddish cultural club. Lansky started his project during graduate school, when he learned that thousands of Yiddish books were being thrown away because a younger generation couldn't read them. He decided to take a two-year leave of absence to rescue as many as he could – that was more than twenty years ago. Since then the center has collected more than 1.5 million Yiddish books, with more arriving every day! As a book lover, I could completely identify with Lansky's passion. Whenever I see piles of old books at garage sales or rummage sales, I feel a really strong urge to buy them all just so nothing bad happens to them. I resist this urge, but am glad that Lansky does not.

Lansky's mission reminded me of another quixotic rescue mission: that of Nicholson Baker (author of many fine novels, including one of my favorites The Mezzanine) and more recently the author of Double Fold and the founder of the American Newspaper Repository, which has collected over five thousand bound volumes of newspapers from the late 19th and early 20th century. Baker started this project when he learned that most libraries have replaced their original archived newspapers (many of which were printed in color) with black and white microfilm copies. Double Fold (a book that is not kind to libraries) explains how these microfilm copies are degrading rapidly, while the original newspapers themselves are still extant and quite readable. When Baker heard that the British Library was planning to dump its entire collection of American newspapers (including issues of the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, and the Chicago Tribune), he launched an emergency fund-raising plan to obtain and store these copies. I see now from the repository's web site that the collection has found a home at Duke University, which I find very reassuring. Baker's point about saving newspapers is this: it's not just about the news, but the whole newspaper itself as a cultural artifact: the comics, the classified ads, the recipes. We have to save these things as records of who we are and who we were. Aaron Lansky shares this vision. What a relief and an inspiration that both these men are so dedicated and impassioned.


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