By the Book column: Story of a savior

It’s interesting how good books locate me. A friend suggests one, a book review stands out, a cover might catch my eye. My next-door neighbor brought over a bagful he had finished — a couple of mysteries, a nature book and Aaron Lansky’s ‘Outwitting History.’ Curious, I opened the Lansky book and started to read. What a terrific story.

In 1980, Lansky and his friends embarked on a 25-year crusade to rescue Yiddish books from destruction. Yiddish, a conversational dialect, had been vilified, judged as vulgar by the purists, and left for dead. In rented trucks Lansky’s crew scoured the East Coast, from Canada to Florida for books — 500 books here, 5,000 there — retrieved from families who had inherited them but could not read them, from publishing companies that could not sell them, from warehouses where they had been left and forgotten for decades, and even from dumpsters, surely destined for oblivion. They later expanded their efforts to all the major American cities, then on to South America and Europe. They saved an astounding 1,500,000 books, and a dying culture as well.

Not only did I like this book, I plucked a great quote from it. Lansky, physically and emotionally drained from his efforts, considered packing it in. A friend quoted Perek, a 2,000-year-old Hebrew text: “It’s not up to you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” He persevered and went on to found the National Yiddish Book Center.

The Perek quote reminded me of a sign we had at work: “If you’re gonna do it, do it; if you’re not gonna do it, then don’t do it; but don’t say you’re gonna do it and then not do it.” I like inspirational stuff like this and remember Ray Nitschke, the ferocious 1960s Packers linebacker, who said to an interviewer, “I’ve never played in a losing game.” The reporter said, “But you lost to the Giants three weeks ago,” and Nitschke replied, “Oh, sure, sometimes the clock runs out while we’re behind, but that’s not losing.”

Such tenacity can be inspiring in real life, as in Lansky and in Greg Mortenson’s ‘Three Cups of Tea,’ as well as in fictional characters like the meshuggener Captain Ahab and the little engine that could.

Life would be difficult without words, and words would be difficult without grammar. In the mid-’70s my teenage daughter said something like, “It’s not too big of a deal,” and I remember wondering where the “of” had come from. Wasn’t “too big a deal” good enough? Sometime later I was listening to a tape of Bobby Thompson’s stunning home run and the announcer, Russ Hodges, said, “Lockman, with not too big of a lead off second.” This was said in 1951, and now you hear and read it everywhere. Are there any English teachers out there? Give us the truth! I can handle the truth! What’s up with the “of”?

Finally, a sort of mystical quote from the movie “La Talante,” which I send out to my wife as St. Valentine’s Day approaches. “I saw you before I met you.” My impossible dream, certainly.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press and a former member of Southold Free Library’s board of trustees. He can be reached at [email protected].