The End of a Very Long Book Career: Leona Rostenberg Dies
Leona Rostenberg (right) and Madeleine Stern on the cover of one of their many books.
By Michael Stillman
One of the longest bookselling careers ever came to an end March 17 with the passing of Leona Rostenberg at her home in New York City. Ms. Rostenberg spent some sixty-five years in the field, which must be some kind of record for a person not born into a bookselling family. Indeed, she was already many years out of college, having spent several years doing research in Europe, when she applied for her first job in the trade. Ms. Rostenberg was 96-years-old when she died.
While Ms. Rostenberg and her almost life-long friend and partner, Madeleine Stern, operated their Manhattan bookshop for over half a century, she was more than a mere book merchant. She was a writer and researcher as well, often writing as co-author with Ms. Stern. Ms. Rostenberg was an expert in the field of early printers, writing her doctoral dissertation (never accepted) and many books on the subject. However, she is best remembered for some detective work carried out by her and Ms. Stern early in their careers. It had been rumored that Louisa May Alcott, most known for her novel "Little Women," was the pseudonymous author of other works, but no one knew what. Digging through Alcott's papers, the partners discovered a reference to an "A.M. Barnard." They had discovered another series of Alcott books. They revealed their findings in 1942, and named some more discoveries in 1975.
Ms. Rostenberg got her first job in the book trade after returning from studies in Europe in the 1930s. Herbert Reichner was one of the Austrian and German booksellers who fled the looming horrors on that continent to set up shop in America. He was looking for an assistant who understood European books, such a person being a rarity in pre-war America. Ms. Rostenberg fit the bill, and so she went to work for Reichner. She evidently did not find that job particularly pleasant, but it did prepare her to strike out on her own a few years later. Soon joined by her friend, Ms. Stern, a business and partnership was started which would not end until broken by death a few weeks ago. Along the way, Ms. Rostenberg would sell books to many of the largest collectors and most important institutions, as well as serve from 1972-1974 as President of the ABAA (Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America).
However, we are not here to write an obituary, nor even a eulogy, for Ms. Rostenberg. Her eulogy is written in her career, and she will undoubtedly be included in any list of the important booksellers of the 20th century. What we do want to recount are some words she and Ms. Stern wrote only a few years back, when Ms. Rostenberg had already passed age 90, because they speak to the importance of old books in this new age, even the age of the internet. Her words are not just relics of the past, but address the role of antiquarian books in today's world. What she says is vitally important for those who collect or trade in antiquarian books, because many people question what their relevancy is today.
The End of a Very Long Book Career: Leona Rostenberg Dies
The following quotes are taken from The Prologue to Our Lives, by Rostenberg and Stern, which appears in the Spring 2000 edition of RBM on the American Library Association website: http://www.ala.org/ala/acrl/acrlpubs/rbm/backissuesvol1no1/backissuesvol.htm. There are two issues which all who are involved with antiquarian books must confront. The first is, what is the importance of the material contained in these books now anyway? Matters of history can today be reviewed with the benefit of all of the research that has taken place in the years since the events occurred. Who needs the incomplete early reports any longer? The second issue is, with older text now becoming readily available either online or through other digital records, what is the relevance of the physical old books anymore?
To the first question, why original source material is still important when so much in the way of later reconstruction and interpretation is available, listen to Rostenberg and Stern: "To study and reanimate the past, scholars need to know the past when it was the present." The point is well taken. If you were to read a book about Abraham Lincoln today, the chances are it would be a recent one. It may include the benefits of much labor and research, but the chances are it may also be influenced by the writer's own views and ideology and warped by time, even if unconsciously so. The writer sees Lincoln through the wisdom of hindsight, but without the connection of personal experience. The history writer can never fully experience the context or the emotions swirling around those events. Only original source material can truly reflect how those events were experienced by those who lived them. So sure, read the great modern histories and biographies, which may clear away some of the misunderstandings or misrepresentations of old sources, but also read what was written contemporaneously to get the full picture, so you can draw your own conclusions.
Now for the second point. As long as we can obtain this information electronically, what value is there to the physical first sources any longer? Again some valuable words: "What electronic process can reproduce the touch and feel of an incunable Book Of Hours...first edition of Voltaire or Rousseau, the original appearance of a plea for utopian government or perennial peace, the startling revelations of Charles Darwin aboard the Beagle? Nothing in cyberspace can convey the character and substance of the original. It is the original that embodies the past and transports the past into the present." Rostenberg and Stern were writing for Special Collections Librarians at the time, but this is a phenomenon equally known to the private collector. While the text of an old book can be displayed electronically, and its words studied from a computer screen, collectors and librarians still experience a connection to the past that only comes from the original document itself. Perhaps this connection is somewhat ephemeral, even spiritual, but as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said about a wholly different subject (okay, that subject was pornography), "I know it when I see it." There is something about physical books that those who love them understand, even if others do not. They are sort of like the Grand Canyon. A photograph or movie can explain it intellectually, but it isn't quite the same as seeing it in person. No, it isn't the same at all. Thank you, Leona Rostenberg, for helping us understand what old books are all about.