Thursday 19 February 2015

Old Books, Rare Friends by Leona Rostenberg & Madeleine Stern

You know what it's like with book reviews on Stuck-in-a-Book - they're like buses; you wait a month for one, and then three come along at once. (If you've ever waited a month for a bus, then - please - just give up and get a taxi.) In the weekend last year where I coincidentally read a bunch of books I bought in America, one of them had the enticing title Old Books, Rare Friends: Two Literary Sleuths and Their Shared Passion (1997) by Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern. (Who first told me about this? Was it YOU?)

I'm not the sort of man to walk away from a book about loving books, particularly one penned by older women, and so I was excited to read this. But it was quite a while ago, so I'm going to review this one in bullet points... let's call it an experiment.

  • Leona and Madeleine take it in turns to narrate chapters, starting with their childhoods (perhaps unsurprisingly) and through the schooling and college education. 
  • The main point of interest here is that one of them was refused her doctorate, mostly because her supervisor disagreed with her argument. (That is NOT acceptable supervising.)
  • I could never really tell Leona and Madeleine apart from their writing styles, so their lives intertwined for me.
  • They set up a rare books business together, buying and selling, and this is where my interest was piqued.
  • They make catalogues! I could read about the preparation of catalogues forever.
  • They're only interested in very old books, so my love of 20th-century literature was never really satisfied. But, oh well.
  • And they discovered sensation magazine stories that Louisa M. Alcott had written under a pseudonym - which led to a minor sort of literary fame for them.
  • I really enjoyed it! Reading about the books business, particularly in a time before the internet made book hunting both easier and less filled with surprises is always fun.

Here is my caveat (for which I have slipped out of bullet points). I love reading about readers; about people who hunt for books because they are desperate to read them. Rostenberg and Stern hunt for books for a living, and so (naturally enough) are concerned more with profit than anything else. Still, I couldn't help weary a little at the number of times they said how much they'd paid for something and how much they'd sold it for - particularly on the occasions when that effectively meant diddling a seller out of money, because the seller had sold a book for less than it was worth. Which made it rather a surprise to come across this paragraph in the epilogue:
We have become keen observers of the generations who have succeeded us. Every age is critical of the next, and we are no exceptions. Although we admire and befriend many young dealers who do not confuse value with price, we deplore the all too popular conception entertained by many dealers that books are to be regarded primarily as investments. Such booksellers go in for dollarship, not scholarship.
I wonder how they think they differ from this? Perhaps as bibliophiles, albeit bibliophiles who get money from their love, rather than simply gratification.

But, this quibble aside, I found it fascinating and fun. It's not up there with Phantoms on the Bookshelves or Howards End is on the Landing - the works of true booklovers, and lovers of 20th-century fiction into the bargain - and it's not quite the book that I thought it would be, but Old Books, Rare Friends will still retain its place on my books-about-books bookshelf.


  1. I'd like to think it was me as I wrote a review of one of their other books back in 2009, but I don't think you were aware of me at that point (although I was aware of you). Wait, yes you were I just found a comment of yours on my blog that predates my review.

    I agree with your quibble, these women were collectors and not necessarily readers. And like you, they were interested in stuff that I don't have much interest in. Although I own all of their books, I've only read the one about one of their extended buying trips to Europe and the UK after WWII when no one in Europe had the money to buy ancient books.

    Here's the above mentioned blog post.

    1. Let's say it was you, then :)
      And I don't know when I started reading your blog, so I'd be intrigued to find out how far my comments go back...

  2. Fascinating Simon, and I had the same kind of issue when I read John Baxter's "A Pound of Paper". Although he was waxing enthusiastic about all the lovely books he was buying and selling and collecting, and although he began as a reader, in the end the books became just commodities and I was gobsmacked when he *sold* his precious Graham Greene collection. There's no point collecting the books if you aren't going to read them.....


    1. Ooof, might give that one a miss, then... This is one of the reasons I love Alberto Manguel's books so much - his genuine love of reading and books as books, rather than just commodities.

  3. I loved the life these women made for themselves. While I understand the reader v. collector quibble, I think our Book World needs all of us: readers, sellers, collectors, and even bloggers (!) ...
    Add to that the fact that Leona and Madeleine were a delight, and I was smitten.

    1. They ARE delightful; that I can't possibly argue with :)
      And there's definitely room for all, so long as a love of reading is at the heart of it all - a blogger who didn't love reading, and only made money from books, would make for very disheartening reading.


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