OLD BOOKS, RARE FRIENDS by Leona Rostenberg


Two Literary Sleuths and Their Shared Passion
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 This breezy dual autobiography of two writers and antiquarian- book dealers points up their extraordinary accomplishment in spheres of endeavor long dominated by men. Octogenarian New Yorkers Rostenberg, a historian of early printers and commentator on bibliographical subjects, and Stern, biographer and unmasker of Louisa May Alcott as the unknown writer of ``blood-and-thunder'' thrillers, have been friends since they were students at Columbia University and Barnard College, respectively. In alternating chapters the two detail their early lives, educations, and experiences as innocents abroad, but their story doesn't really heat up until the young Stern, with the economic freedom of a Guggenheim Foundation grant, begins working with clues from Little Women and other sources, as well as some key help from her friend Leona, to lay out the record of Alcott's ``deviational narratives,'' written pseudonymously for the pulp magazines of her day. For Rostenberg, with her academic background in 15th-century books, or incunabula, professional appreciation of vellum, morocco, and calfskin was a natural path. Descriptions of their publications and the growth of their joint business are coupled with firsthand accounts of rare book and pamphlet discoveries abroad and sales to US libraries and academic institutions. Highlights include the sale in the 1960s of several en bloc collections, such as that of the inimitable 16th-century imprint the Aldine Press, Venice, and a marvelous subject collection on Florence with more than 300 works, including Medici family histories, papal bulls, and an illustrated first edition Vasari Lives of the Artists (both collections went to the University of Texas). Of interest for the Alcott material alone, but the light-handed, nontechnical accounts of the uncommon duo's experiences as women antiquarians also make pleasurable reading for anyone immersed in the world of books. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: June 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-385-48514-X
Page count: 192pp
Publisher: Doubleday
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1997