Old Books, Rare Friends
Two Literary Sleuths and Their Shared Passion
By Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern
I really enjoy reading books written by bookish people about books. I was pleasantly surprised to across Old Books, Rare Friends by two antiquarian book collecting bibliophiles on the shelf at the library used book store. I read the cover and it sounded pretty fascinating.
Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern became friends while in college. Both had a fascination for literature, especially from the Renaissance era and American literature from the 1700 and 1800s. It was Leona who discovered that Louisa May Alcott had a flare for writing lurid (for that time period) fiction under a pseudonym, A.M. Barnard. The writer of beloved children’s books, Little Women, etc., also wrote stories about death, opium addiction, and subjugation.
Both women were raised by German-Jewish parents and lived in middle class neighborhoods in New York. Leona and Madeleine did not start out as friends, but when they did initiate a friendship it lasted for over 50 years. They went into the antiquarian book business and conducted their business out of a house in the Bronx during their early years. This is a joint memoir by both ladies and it covers their childhood years through their early dislike of each other to their friendship and success in the world of old books. Their business flourished and they became known as the Holmes and Watson of the rare book business.
Also included in this memoir are their stories of finding rare books in post-Blitz London, training in library studies in Hitler’s Germany, as well as many other fascinating tales. They found many rare books that aided the collections of Columbia University, Brigham Young University, and Yale to name just a couple of institutions who benefitted from their sleuthing.
In addition to world history and their escapades, they wrote a lot about how books came into being and how printing in the middle ages was done. Like any profession, each has its own jargon that the student needs to learn. The rare book business is no different. I definitely did a lot of checking through my giant Webster’s Dictionary to find out the meaning of a lot of the trade words, such as pastiche, octavo, tooled Morocco, and versification. In addition to being a very entertaining read I also learned a lot. I always enjoy learning.
Both ladies wrote several books and many research articles. When this book was written they were both octogenarians. They both lived into their mid-nineties. If you love books and you like history and sleuthing, you will enjoy this book. I am glad I picked it out from the bookshelf. It as a rare, but good read.
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