Old Books in the Old World: Reminiscences of Book Buying Abroad
Leona Rostenberg & Madeleine B. Stern
Imagine transatlantic crossings on the Holland America Line, spending a month and half each summer digging through antiquarian books in the capitals and countryside of Europe, buying hundreds of old books to ship back to the United States to resell for a profit. My own interests in books do not run to the antiquarian side of things, but given the chance I would gladly immerse myself in such excursions. Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern were business partners, friends, and companions for 60 years. Beginning in 1942 the pair became partners in their rare book firm in New York and spent a chunk of their summers traveling to Europe to buy stock. Both were Columbia University educated literary scholars, and considered themselves literary sleuths. In addition to writing five books on the antiquarian book trade, their achievements include a major discovery about Louisa May Alcott. The following passage is taken from a wonderful tribute to Stern at louisamayalcott.org:
Miss Stern was enormously proud of the fact that she and her dear friend, business partner, and companion “literary sleuth,” Leona Rostenberg, helped bring to light Louisa May Alcott’s unknown tales of intrigue, murder, adultery, suicide — and as Miss Stern put it, “thuggism, feminism, hashish, and transvestitism” to boot.
“One of our greatest thrills,” Miss Stern wrote in 1997, “was our discovery of the double literary life of America’s best-loved writer of juvenile fiction. The revelation that the author of Little Women was also the author of clandestine sensational shockers was our blood-and-thunder story.”
The reminiscences in Old Books in the Old World are taken from Rostenberg and Stern’s diary entries from their book buying trips to Europe between 1947 to 1957. After most entries the authors include retrospective epilogues that provide perspective on their experiences as well as dishing the details on where some of their book finds ended up and how much they sold them for.
I love books of all kinds. But the world of antiquarian books is one that I doubt I will ever enter so I don’t know much about it. Old Books in the Old World gives a wonderful glimpse of what goes on in that world. These are seriously old books on seriously old topics. Sixteenth and Seventeenth century manuscripts, books, pamphlets and other ephemera on politics, science, history, geography, religion, philosophy and other topics written in English, French, German, Italian, Dutch, and other languages. Rostenberg and Stern knew what they were doing but often bought things on a hunch, not really knowing what they had in their hands until they get it back to the U.S. to study it and figure out where it fit into the antiquarian universe.
Until I read Old Books in the Old World I never really wondered where universities and libraries got their rare book collections. Not the ancient universities of Europe, those probably grew organically over hundreds of years, but some of the more “recent” universities in the New World like Yale, Columbia, and Cornell. And institutions like the Newberry, Folger, and Library of Congress. And in some cases, books that they bought and overseas and shipped back to New York were eventually sent back across the Atlantic where they found homes at places like the British Museum and the University of Basel.
Besides the tales of treasure hunting for good deals and great books (which of us aren’t drawn to that?), Rostenberg and Stern also give a fantastic firsthand account of post-war Europe. Traveling through England, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and Austria they provide many details of everyday life that are so often missing from World War II histories. I knew about rationing and food shortages in Britain following the war but didn’t realize that a piece of bread could be considered one of the courses in a three course meal at even the nicer restaurants in London. Or another instance where Rostenberg refuses to sit at a table of Germans at an antiquarian conference in Austria. It is hard to imagine what those relationships would have been like so soon after the liberation of the Nazi death camps. Throughout their travels between 1947 and 1957 the duo also heard firsthand accounts of how some of their bookseller friends, Jewish and otherwise managed to survive the war. And with each bookbuying trip they see improvements as England and Europe eventually return to normalcy. They also see the prices of books rise as antiquarian treasures become harder and harder to find.
Old Books in the Old World would be great for anyone with even a passing interest in the antiquarian book trade or for someone interested in a little post-war social history or gossipy European travelogue.