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Pickle Me This

February 14, 2010

Valentines Day Recommendation: A different kind of love story

Old Friends, Rare Books is doubly a love story. About first, an incredible lifelong relationship. One which, the authors note, has been inferred to be sexual, but they say otherwise. That there had been men in their lives, and plenty of other friends, but in no one else did these women begin to find the sense of being so perfectly matched that they’d encountered in each other. Truly– as their joint autobiography attests to– Madeleine Stern and Leona Rostenberg speak in the very same voice, and mostly they’ve been talking about books since their meeting in New York at the beginning of the 1930s. And in recounting their adventures ever since then, the peculiarities of their relationship actually become quite unremarkable, or perhaps only as unremarkable as any extraordinary, enduring absolute partnership could be.

Stern’s work as a biographer brought much acclaim throughout her career– in particularly, her groundbreaking work on Louisa May Alcott. (And with a book on bookish connections, it’s worth noting that I only read Old Books, Rare Friends after seeing it referenced in Harriet Reisman’s new Alcott biography, which I only read because I’d read Little Women in the Fall, and I only did that because I’d found a battered copy in a curbside box two years ago and it had been sitting on my shelf forlorn ever since then). Rostenberg had completed a PhD dissertation on early printers and publishing, but it was unfairly rejected– a wrong that thirty years ago was  righted with the granting her degree in 1972. In the meantime, she’d opened up her own business as a rare book dealer, Stern joining her a few years later, and their book recounts their adventures exploring bookshops throughout the world in search of precious volumes, which did have a knack of turning up rather serendipitously. Their sleuthing/detection skills were also put to use in their discovery of Louisa May Alcott’s vast body of salacious short fiction, published in 19th century periodicals under a pseudonym. This find would cast Alcott’s reputation as a kindly writer of children’s fiction into a new light.

All of which are part of this book’s other compelling love story– Stern and Rostenberg’s lifelong affair with books. An enthusiasm made contagious through such vivid and engaging prose. Truthfully, sixteenth century ephemera isn’t my cuppa tea, but I started to wish it was. Their adventures in literary sleuthing were like Possession but in real life! Their extraordinary lives were such a grand adventure, the stuff of a book lover’s dream.

I am so grateful for the literary luck that put me in touch with this marvelous volume. Love love love.

Happy Valentines Day.

3 thoughts on “Valentines Day Recommendation: A different kind of love story”

  1. Kate S. says:

    I picked this one up after seeing the authors interviewed in the film version of “The Woman Behind Little Women” but I haven’t dived in yet. After reading your post though, I’ll be moving it closer to the top of my TBR pile. It sounds wonderful.

    PS. Your new site is lovely!

  2. Kerry says:

    Kate, you’d love this book. And I look forward to reading your thoughts!

  3. patricia says:

    I’m reading this right now! And it is delightful. I can’t believe I’ve had it on my shelves now (in my section of ‘books about books’) for at least 3 years. Thank you for giving me a gentle nudge to pick it up.

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