“…The electrifying alertness to what is unusual or important in an early printed book has been given the name Finger-Spitzengefuhl. When Finger-Spintzengefuhl is coupled with serendipity, the gates of paradise open for the dealer in old and rare…”
Old Books, Rare Friends; Two Literary Sleuths and Their Shared Passion. Leona Rostenberg & Madeleine Stern, Prologue, page 4
Finger-Spitzengefuhl. So that is what I felt tingling in my fingers when I found this book at a used bookstore a few weeks ago. While not a rare book, rather new in fact, Old Books, Rare Friends called out to me to pick it up. It was in excellent condition with a library binding, dust cover and plastic protector, along with a 1997 copyright date. It felt like it had never been opened and had WITHDRAWN stamped, in large, red letters, onto its very first page and the Dewey Decimal sticker was still firmly in place (381.45 ROS – in case you want to check out your library). Hmmm. A book about two friends who are rare book dealers. There might as well have been a bookplate with my name engraved on it, so, up it was plucked and home it was taken until this very week’s end when I cracked open its pages and have there settled ever since in the lives of Leona and Madeleine.
In this delightful autobiography, we follow the authors through childhood and school, with lives of academic pursuit in the ever-changing world of the ’20s and ’30s and beyond, their writing and venture into the world of antiquarian books, a kingdom then populated by men, and, most prominently, their enduring friendship.
There are chapters filled with their Sherlockian pursuit of literary clues and discoveries as they refer to themselves as the Sherlock and Watson of book discovery. There is Leona and Madeleine’s love of knowledge and discovery, their shared love of family and education, and their collective sense of adventure and sometimes naive approach to travel with a hilarious scene where they realize they have booked a room at an English brothel.
If I judged this book by its cover, I knew I was getting a story rich in the experiences of the antiquarian and rare book business, a topic I am always interested in. I knew I would meet two women who paved the way for so many others, garnishing their education and pursuing their life’s work in a time when women were not often welcome in such pursuits. What I didn’t know by its cover was the part Louisa May Alcott would play in the lives of the authors.
Some of you may know of my interest in all things Alcott; her books, her story, the time in which she lived. We visited Orchard House, where Little Women was written and the cemetery where Louisa is buried in Concord, MA. My excitement was barely contained when PBS’s American Master’s series aired a docudrama about Alcott’s life and the glee I felt when our book group discussed Little Women. You can only imagine my excitement as I came to the realization that this little gem of a book about two literary sleuths were also the ones who connected Louisa May Alcott to A.M. Barnard, the author of sensational stories and books featuring transvestites and spies, opium and the seedier side of life in the 1800′s. Pulp fiction that Louisa wrote and had published rather abundantly in a time without typewriters and computers and copy machines, much of it under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard! It was Leona that made the discovery, and Madeleine that went on to write the seminole biography of Louisa May Alcott in the 1950′s and then to write several more books and edit even more. I realized with pleasure and surprise that Madeleine Stern is mentioned and foot noted in several books I have about LMA, most recently in the Harriet Reisen book that was a companion book to the PBS American Masters feature, The Woman Behind Little Women.
What an interesting book this was for me to read this weekend; and interesting find at a charity shop for a mere $3.95. Finger-Spitzengefuhl, indeed! I still feel my fingers tingling.