My Life With Books: How One Thing Leads to Another

by Fred Schreiber

Like many of my antiquarian colleagues, I began my life with books as a collector. Ever since I can remember, I have collected something--beginning with stamps and comic books. I confess to becoming more than slightly exasperated by the often heard claim of non-collectors: "If I could afford it, I would also be a collector"--and this usually from people who clearly have more money than I. True, you do need money (and plenty of it) if your tastes run to Caxtons or Rembrandts; however, as collectors are only too well aware, the passion for collecting is not one you must be able to afford to satisfy, so much as one you must satisfy, whatever your financial status. Erasmus expressed it best when he said: "When I get a little money, I buy books, and if any is left, I buy food and clothes." The passion for collecting is simply part of some people's psyche, just as it is absent from others. A person need not apologize for or justify not being a collector; it is no disgrace, just as it isn't a disgrace not to be infected with the flu virus.

I truly believe that in my own case, just as I could not help being a collector, becoming an antiquarian bookseller specializing in early books was also inevitable and was merely the fulfillment of my personal manifest destiny.

Let me begin at the beginning. I come from a very humble, working-class background. My father was an unskilled laborer whom I don't recall ever seeing with a book, magazine, or newspaper in his hands, though I know he could read. As for my mother, I am quite sure she never attended school. I myself left school at the age of fourteen, after the eighth grade. I grew up in France but wasn't born there, so I was not considered French by the French. I was born in Germany, but, as my family left Germany when I was not yet three (the day after Kristallnacht), I have never thought of myself as German. I was born a Jew, but was never bar mitzvahed and have never practiced Judaism. I am a naturalized American citizen; since I speak English with a vague European accent, I am often taken for a foreigner.

When I left school at fourteen, I was forced to work in the French equivalent of a sweatshop, where I served as an apprentice tailor in ladies garments. Neither my heart nor my skills lay in tailoring, and, consequently, I never quite learned this trade. Deep down I knew I wasn't cut out to be a tailor (no pun intended). Nevertheless, that is what I did from the ages of fourteen to seventeen in Paris.

I came to America a few months past my seventeenth birthday, speaking not a word of English, without education, without skills. In New York, where I landed, and where I still live, I went to work at a minimum-wage unskilled job for the next seven years: I was employed in the shipping department of a watch-importing firm in New York's "Diamond District," on 47th Street. During the first five of these seven years, I lived a quasi-isolated existence, without friends, and virtually without anyone to talk to. How could I possibly have come in contact with people my own age who were in school? Even if I chanced to meet a contemporary--invariably a high school or college student--I was so excruciatingly aware of my own lack of education (to say nothing of my broken English), that I felt too embarrassed and inadequate to initiate or sustain any sort of conversation, however passionately I was burning to do so. I had accepted my lot as an unskilled, uneducated shipping clerk. How I envied those high school students whom I saw on the subway in the morning on my way to work. They carried books on such esoteric subjects as "Algebra" and "Trigonometry." Some of them even studied Latin, to me a mystical language. I looked upon these young people as privileged geniuses living in another world, a world from which I felt I was and always would be excluded. I am aware that this sounds melodramatic, but I remember that it is exactly how I felt. Now, of course, I realize how naively my imagination had glamorized and overestimated "that other world."

During these lonely years my constant companions were books. Even though I lacked the benefits of a formal education, I had always been, from earliest youth, an avid reader and book collector (as I mentioned before, you don't need much money to be a collector). My passion for reading and books had been instilled when, at the age of nine, during the War, I was hospitalized in Grenoble for over a year. Like so many other Jewish children in war-torn Europe, I had been separated from my parents, and had become, for all intents and purposes, an orphan. I had been given a new identity: my name was now Alfred Chabert, my nationality French, my religion Catholic; as to my parents, if ever I should be questioned about them, I was drilled to say that they were dead (a fact which I had actually come to believe). So, being the only child in a ward occupied primarily by wounded French maquisards and Allied soldiers, I turned to the books that my ward fellows (who had adopted me as their mascot) lent me: they would ask their wives, girlfriends, mothers, or sisters to bring me such reading material as was appropriate to my age; this consisted of everything from comic books and thrilling boys' stories, to French translations of the adventure tales by such popular American authors as Mayne Reid and James Oliver Curwood. My reading also included Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo, whose Les Misérables was the first "real" book that I read--although, as I look back, it must have been an adaptation for younger readers: an illustrated folio bound in glossy boards, its front cover adorned with a heroic picture of gun-brandishing Gavroche on the barricades.

I will mention only one other book from that early period: a French edition of Aesop's Fables with illustrations by the English artist Arthur Rackham; I was totally captivated by Rackham's imagination and whimsy, especially by his anthropomorphic trees. I had of course never seen anything like it; much later in life I became a very enthusiastic collector of Arthur Rackham and formed an important collection of his limited and signed editions, as well as his original drawings and watercolors.

During my first five years in America, I taught myself English by going to the movies often and also by reading, among other things, the novels of Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and all the Sherlock Holmes novels and stories, in the one-volume Doubleday edition with a preface by Christopher Morley; for practice in English, I even tried my hand at producing my own French translation of "A Study in Scarlet"; naturally I was ill-equipped for the task, translating literally, word-for-word, and missing all metaphorical subtleties: I remember giving up my project early in the game when I was totally baffled by a passage which, due to my linguistic and literary unsophistication, I took literally: it is when Watson tells of his arriving in London, which he describes as "that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irrestibly drained." I also memorized such poems as Oscar Wilde's "Ballad of Reading Gaol," Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and the first hundred verses or so of Milton's Paradise Lost, looking up and jotting down every word that was new to me. The choice of these particular authors and texts was inspired by the monthly selections of the Heritage Club, a sort of Poor Man's version of the Limited Editions Club. My salary was $35 a week ($28 after taxes), and out of this amount I would save $5 a month to pay for my selection of the Heritage Club.

I eventually made a friend. His name was Nathan, a student at City College, and in fact, the first college student I had ever met in person. I immediately began asking Nathan to describe what went on in his classes, and the sorts of things he studied, listening rapturously to his accounts as one listens to the tales of a traveler relating his adventures in distant and exotic lands. At the end of the semester, I offered to buy from Nathan some of the textbooks he had used in his classes. One of these proved to have a particularly powerful impact on me: a textbook on abnormal psychology replete with case histories. The name "Freud" appeared prominently throughout the volume, arousing my curiosity, and prompting me to buy The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud in the Modern Library Series.

I read this volume from cover to cover and was particularly impressed by Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. The titlepage carried a Latin quotation, which, at that time, I could not understand, of course, but whose very impenetrability imbued it, in my mind, with a mystical and hoary wisdom:

Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo
(Years later I was to learn the meaning of this verse as well as its source: it comes from Book VII of Virgil's Aeneid: "If Heaven I cannot sway, then I will rouse the powers of Hell.")

One day, in the heat of my Freud passion, I expressed this wish to my only friend: "Nathan, if I could be reborn, you know what I would do? I would become a psychoanalyst!" Nathan replied casually: "You don't have to be reborn, you can still become a psychoanalyst." Angered by what I took to be sarcasm, I exclaimed in frustration: "How could I possibly become a psychoanalyst? I am 22 years old and I don't even know what the inside of a high school looks like!"

I doubt that Nathan could have known the impact which his next words, uttered in an offhand manner, were to have on the rest of my life: "You could go to school at night." I was staggered! "You mean, they have high schools at night, and I could go there at my age?" "Yes," he replied, "and you might not even be the oldest student there."

This was a revelation to me since I had always associated school with daylight and youth. That very evening, after work, I decided to inquire at the nearest high school in my neighborhood, Washington Irving High School, near Union Square. I was nervous and apprehensive. As I entered the building I felt that I was trespassing on Sacred Ground and I began to wonder whether Nathan knew what he was talking about. I was ushered into a room where several teachers sat at desks. One of them motioned to me to come sit by him. "I am interested in going to high school at night," I stammered, expecting him to laugh at me. He did not, and said: "It's too late in the semester; come back at the end of January to register." I was both irritated and alarmed at the casual tone with which he dismissed me: did this man realize that my entire future was at stake? Suppose they find out I never studied algebra (whatever that was). I decided to lay my cards on the table, and said hesitatingly: "But I never studied algebra." "If you should find high school courses too challenging," he replied, "you can attend our elementary classes for adults." I was amazed to learn that adults could attend not only high school at night, but even elementary school. Now the teacher, perhaps on account of my obvious nervousness as well as my heavy accent and frequent mispronunciations, looked up at me and asked: "Do you have trouble reading English?" What a question, I thought, if I didn't read English perfectly, would I have the audacity to apply to high school? "Yes, of course," I answered. "What books have you read?" The moment of truth had come: now I was surely going to be laughed out of the office. "I read Charles Dickens" I answered timidly. "What do you mean, 'Charles Dickens'?" For a moment I thought I had mispronounced the name and I looked at him in panic. "You mean, A Tale of Two Cities?" he asked. "Yes, and the other novels"; he looked at me incredulously, as though challenging me to elaborate; visualizing the row of Heritage Press editions of Dickens on my shelf at home, I began to recite: "I've read The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewit [which I must have pronounced "MARTIN SHOOZZLEVEETE"], Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, Bleak House, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Fr . . . " The teacher raised his hand motioning me to stop my bibliographic recitation. "What else have you read, besides Dickens?" "I've read Mark Twain." Again he looked at me in silence, waiting for me to elaborate: "I've read Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Innocents Abroad, Pudd'nhead Wilson, Connecticut Yankee, Life on the Miss . . . " At that point I heard what I took for snickering from the other side of the office, where three or four other teachers had gathered round a water cooler; they had apparently been listening to this interview. I was convinced that they were laughing at my naiveté and arrogance to presume that I could aspire to high school with such elementary reading: "real" high school students, I imagined, must read not only so much more, but so much more sophisticated books which I had never even heard of! "Read Shakespeare?" my interviewer went on to ask with a wink at his colleagues. Shakespeare was the kiss of death: I had recently bought a remaindered one-volume edition of Shakespeare with illustrations by Rockwell Kent, and had begun making my way through it, but was far from finished. "Yes" I answered apologetically, "but I've only read 14 of his plays." I expected him to dismiss me in disgust for having wasted his time, but all he said was, "Registration is in the last week of January, come back then--and don't worry."

But I did worry. What if at registration they find out I don't know algebra? Then, I thought back to what the man had said about elementary classes for adults: suddenly I knew that I could begin my life over again, for I realized that if I could not cope with high school, I could first finish elementary school.

That evening is etched in my memory as sharply as if it had happened only yesterday. I remember it with the vividness of my first kiss, my wedding day, the day my daughter Rachel was born. I had made a turn in the road away from the past and toward a new future. I was being given a second chance: miraculously, I had been reborn.

I couldn't wait to go home and call my friend. "Nathan," I asked, "how many years does it take to finish high school?" "Four years," he replied. I suspected that in my case it might take longer since I could only go at night after work. "How long does college take?" "Another four years." Now the collector in me began to express himself, compelling me to complete the set: "Suppose someone wished to be educated beyond college, is this possible?" "One could go on to get a Masters degree in a specialized subject; that could take another couple of years." "Is there any more advanced degree one can get after a such a Masters?" "Some people go on to study for a Ph.D., it stands for 'Doctor of Philosophy.' It takes many years to get one. You've got to write a book, or something, and they call you 'Doctor' after you get one." I knew that this is what I wanted and couldn't settle for less--besides, as I mentioned, I am a completist. I now asked my final question. "Nathan, what is the best and most famous university in America where one can obtain such a Ph.D.?" "Harvard University," he replied, "it's in Massachusetts, near Boston."

"Nathan" I heard myself say, "I'm gonna get a Ph.D. from Harvard!"

Twelve years later, shortly after my daughter Rachel was born, I was awarded my Ph.D. in Classical Philology from Harvard. On graduation day, Ellen, my wife, surprised me with a rare edition of Homer's Odyssey, my favorite book. It was the Riccardi Press edition, limited to 500 copies, with illustrations by Russell Flint, which I had been admiring longingly for several weeks in the window of the Temple Bar Bookshop, on Massachusetts Avenue. The volume, which Ellen had inscribed to me with a sentiment commenting on my graduation and what it represented in my life, is the prize possession in my library.

Why did I pursue a doctorate in Classics? Perhaps because my one objective was to have the sort of humanistic education that some of my intellectual heroes had enjoyed: men like Rabelais, Victor Hugo, Sigmund Freud all knew Latin and some even Greek; others, like Shakespeare, had a smattering of both; looking back, I think that my choice of a specialty may subconsciously have been based on the following simple-minded syllogism:

  1. I want to be educated.
  2. All the educated people I read about and admire knew Greek and Latin.
  3. Therefore I must study Greek and Latin.
While pursuing my graduate studies I found that I was often just as interested in the manuscript and printed tradition of the authors I was reading as the texts themselves. For instance, I became intrigued by the fact that the text of Plato, whether in the original Greek or in translation, is cited according to the "Stephanus" reference; I was also struck by the fact that few students of the classics knew what "Stephanus" referred to. After some easy research I discovered that the "Stephanus" numbers go back to a sixteenth-century edition of Plato published in 1578 by the humanist printer Henri Estienne, also known under the Graeco-Latinized form of his name, Henricus Stephanus. It is the pagination of Estienne's edition that still provides the universally accepted system of reference to the Platonic text, so that, to this day, scholars who cite the text do so according to the "Stephanus" reference numbers, corresponding to the sections into which Henri Estienne divided the pages of this epoch-making edition and which conventionally still appear in the margins of all modern editions of Plato, in every language. Should I admit it? when I discovered this fact, I found it far more fascinating than anything I had read in Plato's Dialogues themselves!

In the Harvard Classics Department, before a student is allowed to submit a doctoral thesis topic, he or she must first undergo a battery of oral and written examinations; for the final orals a student must prepare two special authors, one Greek and one Latin, as well as one special field. For the Greek author I chose the comic writer Aristophanes, and naturally used this as an opportunity to begin collecting all the editions and translations of Aristophanes that I could find. For that purpose I had my name placed on most appropriate booksellers' mailing lists, here and abroad, including William Allen's bookshop, here in Philadelphia, and the late William Salloch, of Ossining, NY. I may mention in passing that the publication of a new William Allen Classics catalogue is a momentous event in a Classicist's life: whenever I received a new Allen catalogue, with the familiar bust of Homer on the cover, it was difficult for me to concentrate in my next seminar, and I couldn't wait for the break to go feverishly through the catalogue in hope of finding a long-desired item before some less deserving soul might grab it away.

After obtaining my doctorate, I followed what I saw as the only possible course open to me: propagating my recently acquired knowledge by becoming a college teacher. I joined the faculty of CUNY, but soon realized that what I had really wanted all along was not so much to become a professor as to be educated. What I truly wanted now, was to spend the rest of my life with antiquarian books. Some of the most exhilarating moments of my life had been those provided by my frequent visits to rare book shops, in search of rare limited, signed Rackhams: I remembered with fondness such shops as Inman's, on East 50th Street, Philip Duschnes, Walter Schatzki, Herman Cohen's Chiswick Bookshop, as well as the Rare Book rooms at Brentano's and Scribner's. While still teaching, I decided to try my hand at bookselling, and, to test the waters, so to speak, I issued a catalogue of my own. Although I called it "catalogue," it was no more than a list, offset from my typewritten copy, offering a selection of various editions of the Greek and Roman authors, mostly nineteenth- and twentieth-century books of the used and out-of-print variety. My list did contain at least one book which I then considered deserving of the appellation "antiquarian": an eighteenth-century edition of the treatise On the Education of the Orator by the first-century Roman writer, Quintilian.

The circumstances of the sale of this Quintilian was the occasion of one of the most valuable lessons I was to learn as a bookseller. Priced at $50, the Quintilian was the most expensive book I was offering, and I was certain I would never sell it since I could not imagine how its obsolete text and antiquated commentary (by a certain Johann Matthias Gesner) could be of use to anyone. You may imagine my surprise (and exhilaration) when the first order I received was for the Quintilian. The order did not come from a library or a private collector, but from a bookseller, one Emil Offenbacher, in the borough of Queens, in New York City. I was so thrilled that, instead of mailing the book to him, I decided to deliver it personally. I had already heard about this erudite bookseller specializing in the history of science, medicine, and other technical subjects, and felt that this was a perfect opportunity to meet him and perhaps ask him some pointers about entering the book business. I must say that I was also rather curious to know why a bookseller, who had a reputation for "knowing what he was doing," was interested in an old, obsolete edition of a Latin classic, whose content had no bearing whatsoever on the subjects of concern to him.

When I delivered the Quintilian, curiosity got the better of me prompting me to ask Mr. Offenbacher why he had ordered this book. Instead of answering, Mr. Offenbacher proceeded to leaf through the volume, as though looking for a specific spot. After finding the page, he handed the opened book back to me, asking me to read and translate a certain passage of Gesner's commentary. When I had finished translating the passage, in which Gesner compared the laws of oratory to those of musical structure, and described a certain "Bacchius" playing some kind of wind instrument, Emil smiled and said: "what you have just read happens to be the earliest published biographical reference to Johann Sebastian Bach, and as such it is of great importance in the history of musicology"; behind the smile with which he accompanied this piece of information I could almost hear Emil's unspoken thought: "and therefore it is worth many times more than what you sold it to me for, you ignoramus!"

The lesson Emil Offenbacher taught me that day was that there are many facets to a book, some of them concealed below the surface, and no Ph.D. in classical philology had prepared me to uncover them. If I wanted to become an antiquarian bookseller, I plainly had to expand my bibliographic tunnel vision by opening my eyes to all the hidden possibilities and learn how to really look at a book. In sum, that day I learned that in the antiquarian book business knowledge is truly power.

After that visit, I became painfully aware of the narrowness of my intended field of expertise and of how little knowledge or preparation I had to enter it. It was clearly not enough to know the Greek and Latin classics if one wished to survive in the book business, and suddenly, the idea of changing careers did not seem like such a wise course. After all, I was already in my forties, had a family and a mortgage. How could I give up the security of steady employment, with good benefits, and even tenure? I had no training in the book business, and perhaps even worse, I had no capital to speak of.

One day, as I was debating these issues for the thousandth time, I heard a distant voice in me say: "Besides, I don't even know algebra!" and I then realized that the real obstacle to my ambition was my old enemy: Fear of the Unknown. Indeed, this fear--even when it is legitimate (as in this case)--can squelch any hope or ambition before it even takes shape. But I also was aware that I was no longer a green recruit, and had at least once already done battle against and overcome this insidious enemy. That time I had been alone, but now I had a mighty ally against hesitation and insecurity--my wife. Ellen's encouragement and absolute faith in me and my abilities proved to be far more valuable than any training or capital, and were the deciding factor in my giving up my tenured professorship and striking out on my own as a bookseller. I soon realized that for learning the ropes and expanding my knowledge I actually had teachers who were far more useful than any standard apprenticeship I might have served, in the form of some of the catalogues I was now receiving regularly. These were rich in the erudition and expertise of booksellers who had been trained in the best tradition here and abroad: scholarly booksellers like Marianne and William Salloch, Otto Ranschburg (of Lathrop Harper), Emil Offenbacher, Laurence Witten, Bernard Rosenthal, and many others.

To capitalize my enterprise, I decided to sell off my Arthur Rackham collection, which had lain fallow for some time now: I had managed to acquire every known de luxe Rackham edition, and was left with no more mountains to climb in that range. Besides, as I mentioned earlier, my new collecting passion had become Aristophanes.

The field of bookselling that particularly attracted me was early printed continental books, and I reasoned that the best and most efficient way to learn the myriad facets of antiquarian bookselling, while familiarizing myself with relevant bibliographies and reference works, was to put to didactic use my very passion for book collecting. Surely, if I started collecting the works of a prolific Renaissance printer, I would be introduced to all the variety of disciplines that constituted his output, and thus be compelled to research subjects about which I knew little or nothing. The first name that came to mind was that of my old friend Stephanus, whom I had first met in graduate school while reading Plato.

Thus I began acquiring every Stephanus, or Estienne, edition I could find and afford, and soon learned that Henri Estienne was only one member of a great dynasty of French scholar-printers, spanning nearly two centuries. Providing the universal system of reference to Plato was merely one of many important contributions to western culture made by the Estiennes: for instance, Henri Estienne's father, Robert Estienne, is responsible for the division of the text of the Bible into the numbered verses universally followed today. So, by collecting and studying the Estiennes' works I was introduced to such fields as lexicography, theology, early mathematics, science and medicine, early woodcut illustration, and various others. As my collection grew, I planned to prepare a special catalogue describing every Estienne book I had acquired. When my collection reached 300 items, I issued this reference catalogue, and the collection was bought en bloc by the University of North Carolina, at Chapel Hill.

The sale of the Estienne collection made me realize that I had found an ideal way to combine my collecting passion with bookselling, and I immediately began another collection. This time the subject presented itself quite naturally, as an outgrowth of the Estienne collection: the printer Simon de Colines, who was related to the Estiennes by both professional and family ties. With Colines, instead of dealing with an entire printing dynasty spanning almost two centuries, I could focus on a single printer, active for no more than a quarter century. After twelve years I had gathered nearly 250 representative Colines editions; once again the collection was acquired in its entirety, this time by Brigham Young University, and resulted in my publishing another reference catalogue which was issued last year.

While still gathering Colines editions, I began to collect the works of yet another French Renaissance printer: Sebastian Gryphius, active in Lyon from 1528 to 1556, and the most prolific printer of France; Gryphius surrounded himself with some of the most eminent scholars and literary figures of the day, and his Lyon establishment ("At the Sign of the Gryphon") became a popular and frequent meeting-place, or "hangout," for "regulars" like Étienne Dolet, Andrea Alciati, Jacopo Sadoleto, Rabelais, and others. These men became Gryphius's collaborators, not only by contributing copy to him, but also by serving as copy editors to his press--a fact that accounts for the remarkable accuracy of Gryphius editions. The Gryphius collection was recently acquired by the Beinecke Library of Yale University.

It is a paradoxical truism that the more one learns, the more one becomes aware of how little one knows. Although the building of these three collections has taught me a great deal, it has also made me acutely aware of the immensity of my ignorance; perhaps I will reduce this ignorance a bit when I work on my next collection; unfortunately, I have not yet been able to think of an appropriate subject. I feel that I have exhausted my enthusiasm for collecting the works of printers and am ready to attack a totally different category, perhaps a literary genre or a cultural movement. I am at present a collector without a collection. However, I know that eventually something will turn up, since collecting is not a passive but an active, creative force, and, like all creative impulses it must and will ultimately find an expression. In the meantime, if anyone in this learned audience has any suggestions, I will welcome them.

DT offers special thanks to Jack Lynch and Sam Choi for help in translating the MIME file in which Fred Schreiber's text arrived, in order to make it readable.