Sunday, December 6, 2009

Connections: Our Selves - Our Books

91. Connections: Our Selves - Our Books, by Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine B. Stern

Miss Rostenberg and Miss Stern were an amazing couple. They met in the early '30s, teaching Sabbath School, and became partners in life and in the rare book business. I wonder how many young women today have any conception how difficult their path was. Feminists, scholars, entrepreneurs, unmarried, in a world where women were expected to be none of those things, they lived, in the words of the New York Times obituary of Miss Rostenberg, "in a universe in which it was not possible to live the way she wanted to. She simply ignored that impossibility, created her own universe and, in a small but exquisite way, changed the world."

Between them, they wrote or edited upwards of thirty books, and innumerable sale catalogues. This book is rather special, though. Here, they describe books that they have bought and sold over the years, but these are all books with special meaning for one or the other or both. For Leona, who had been told by a college professor not to set her sights too high because she was "a woman and a Jew", and who was distantly related to Alfred Dreyfus, finding Émile Zola's pamphlet, "L'Affaire Dreyfus. Lettre A La Jeunesse", was a dramatic reminder of intolerance. Madeleine, who is, of course, best known for her work editing collections of Louisa May Alcott's potboilers, writes of the acquisition of the first edition of one of Alcott's earliest works, Flower Fables (stories she created for Ralph Waldo Emerson's daughter, Ellen).

There is the book that they never sold, the 1591 Parma imprint of Angeli Bonventura's La Historia della Citta di Parma, with a binding embossed with the arms of George Carew, Earl of Totnes, a book Leona had lusted for ever since she had apprenticed with the antiquarian bookseller, Herbert Reichner. And there is the book they never wrote, a proposed biography of Belle da Costa Greene. The proposal was rejected, as Anne Haight was in the process of writing a biography. In fact, that biography never appeared, though Haight did write a biographical entry on Greene for Notable American Women. (There is now a biography of Greene, Heidi Ardizzone's An Illuminated Life, which I have previously reviewed.)

What books have gone through their hands! What places they have scoured and found! What stories they have to tell! To find a copy of the first Hebrew edition of Theodore Herzl's Der Iudenstaat (the book that inspired the Zionist movement) is one thing. To find it on Erev Rosh Ha-shanah is quite another.

I could go on and on about these connections, the serendipitous finds, the books that escaped only to be found again, but you might as well read the book, enjoy the stories, and marvel at the full and fulfilled lives of Miss Rostenberg and Miss Stern.

Madeleine B. Stern (from the New York Times)
Leona Rostenberg (also from the New York Times)

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