Thursday, September 1, 2016

Jottings : Slice of life - 38

Jottings : Slice of life - 38
The age of reading books is slowly dying, I guess. But I suppose that is true of reading in general. The physicality of books do not excite us any more, and publishers of books, except in rare cases, really dont care about quality, typeface, introductions, prefaces, frontispiece. Paperbacks rule. I wouldn't blame them. With content available on screens in front of us, or reading done only for professional purposes and not much otherwise, why would anyone care at all about making books with care, or why would anyone read anything other than what enhances their work. When I walk into second hand book stores, I sometimes get this feeling of being transported back in time. A 1902 hard bound illustrated edition of Lady Montagu’s letters from Istanbul in musty, aged condition, beautifully embroidered on its outside, tastefully colored and structured - takes me to a far off time and place. I end up buying it, even though I may have two copies of the same book in different editions. It is almost an instantaneous love affair. The book and I strike a strange chord, whose origins are mysterious, cannot be explained. But then, I may be a freak. At least, thats how i am perceived.
Anyway, I wish to dedicate this post to two beautiful Women, who devoted a life time to recovering old books, establishing their authenticity, and passionately advocating the written word as a conduit for cultural, social and intellectual transformation. They were Leona Rosenberg (1910 -2005) and Madeline Stern (1915 -2007). Both of them were from Jewish Immigrant families, who came to this country, as all of us do, to make their dreams come true. Their parents stressed education, hard work and discipline, without ever forcing them. Leona and Mady accidentally met each other at a Jewish Saturday school in their teens, and the spark of friendship ignited. Leona was nerdy, bookish and interested in Medieval history; Mady was more of an intellectual vagabond and her interests were varied. During the 1930’s, both of them embarked upon their common interest - Books. Leona was deeply interested in the impact of Printers on early Publishing history and wrote her doctoral dissertation on it, and Mady pursued English literature. By a tryst of Destiny, Leona’s dissertation was not accepted By Colombia university as a recognized doctoral topic, but then It didn't matter much. She along with Mady had already began on a journey across Europe and America, visiting Old booksellers, antiquarian publishers and collectors . Their passion for what they called “Literary sleuthing” had them recognize instinctively an Old book with historical significance. By 1940’s with little financial help from Mady, Leona set up her own little business procuring and selling Old and rare books. It was a magnificent and intriguing journey full of surprises, disappointment and immense joy. Soon Mady also joined Leona as partner. And thus began a partnership of over sixty years and more of one of the most beautiful examples of personal friendship, and love of Books. Both of them never married, had no children. They had their little flirtations when young, but as Leona writes in her memoir , they were only on the “fringes of their life”. Their relationship was platonic in the true sense of the term. Contrary to rumors, they weren't lesbians either, and even though they lived together, theirs was a relationship based on intellectual togetherness and nothing else. A rare relationship indeed!. While their name as reliable antiquarian booksellers spread, Leona and Mady accidentally embarked upon on an ambitious project, which was to give universal fame in the world of letters. The reading public knew May Louise Alcott as the gentle lady from Connecticut, who wrote the homely word “ Little women” - One of the best known English works of the 19th century. Ms Alcott was known for her homely stories around fireplaces and moral dialogues on virtues and family decorum. During their literary investigations, Leona, found that there could be more to Ms Alcott’s world than mere homely stories. Both Mady and Leona, spent the next three years uncovering trails of Alcott, her pseudonyms and gothic stories printed in steamy journals during that period. In an age when pen names were rare, Ms Alcott almost lived a double life. On one hand , she wrote gentle stories for puritan reading public of New England, and on the other she conjured grotesque, lurid and sensational short stories for journals and newspapers to monetarily support her family. Based on their joint investigation Mady published in 1953, her Brilliant biography of Mary Louise Alcott, still considered the most authoritative, lucid and comprehensive life of that great author. Along with it the reputation of Alcott as a staunch feminist, a writer with tremendous talent and oeuvre was also established. A new revived interest in the academic world in Alcott’s work became possible. Mady went on to write couple of other biographies as well. Each of them, a testimony to her eloquence, research and narration. The ABAA ( Antiquarian Booksellers association of America), an organization of volunteer booksellers and collectors who specialize in recovering, restoring and selling old and valuable books which help in understanding a bygone age, or illuminate a cultural period - appointed Leona as their President in 1971. During her tenure, Both ladies travelled the globe in simplicity and style, warming the hearts of all those who came in contact with them. Their joint publications, catalogues of old books ( 12 of them) on different themes are works of literature themselves. Almost all libraries in the United states are in some way obligated to Leona and Mady for their contributions. Well into the eightieth year, they were requested to write an account of their special friendship and passion for books. They readily agreed and jointly authored an autobiography titled “Old Books, rare friends”, perhaps their last literary effort together. It came out in 1997, and soon became a bestseller. In fact, I have this book in front of me as I pen this essay. In it, in their inimitable style, that is at once scholarly, elegant and profound, they unfold their lives before us. It leaves a reader speechless. Their passion for what they took to be their life’s task, and their deep friendship for each other will be a legend echoing for long time to come. Towards the end of their beautiful book, they sum up their lives in two simple, moving statements. I wish to reproduce it verbatim. They write
“Our lives are our legacy, and it is a legacy dominated by the first person plural. Together we look to the future, to our next find, to our next book, to our next adventure…”
This, they wrote when they past 80 years of age..
In the spirit of this duo, I dedicate this essay to all those who believe that the written word is our precious legacy. From it we derive our sustenance , and its preservation and transmission is a responsibility of each generation to the next. There is a grave danger in allowing ourselves to be carried away by digital revolution. The musty, physical smell and feel of a printed page is giving way to the placid, unflickering presence of a plasma screen. But it would be foolish to believe that the era of books are over. There will always a small group of people who will like to cuddle with a book in their hand, a warm light suffusing the page read, and a mysterious communication between the two happening. And as long as people like Leona and Madeline appear at regular intervals , we will never run short of books to be able to do that.
God bless…
your in mortality,
Bala
(PS : The baby photos of Leona and Mady are from the back cover of a catalogue authored by them. I found this copy in Dallas, in an old dilapidated bookstore near Fort worth…)


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