Telling the Life of Albert Einstein Through Collected Works

Courtesy of Manhattan Rare Book Company

A new book by collector Gary Berger, MD, and bookseller Michael DiRuggiero sheds new light on the scientist.

Back in the old days of collecting — what we can safely call “pre-Internet” — the search for books to fill out a collection happened very differently than it does today. There was AB Bookman’s Weekly, a trade publication for out-of-print books. Booksellers would advertise both their wants and needs, and other booksellers would respond. For booksellers helping a particular collector build a collection, this process was essential. There was a symbiotic relationship between collector and bookseller that today is often too simply replaced by online book marketplaces.

Such was not the case for Gary S. Berger, MD, and Michael DiRuggiero of Manhattan Rare Book Company. Together, they have constructed a remarkable collection of Einstein-related archival material using the relationship and techniques from old-world collecting — two very knowledgeable individuals working together to build a singular collection of great quality. The collection has culminated in book form as Einstein: The Man and His Mind.

Fine Books & Collections spoke to Berger and DiRuggiero about their efforts.

Fine Books: How did you start collecting?

Gary: Probably around 25 years ago while on vacation, I was just sitting out and enjoying the day. I brought a book about Einstein, and I remember having the thought that he's actually a contemporary. I was in eighth grade when he died. And so I was reading this biography and thinking this is like living in the time of Isaac Newton. I found the name of a book dealer in Chicago and I asked, “Do you have something original by Albert Einstein?” And what he had was a photograph that was framed with a signature separate from the photograph. It was very attractive, and it was something that I could afford to buy. I started reaching out to as many book dealers as I could find that I thought might be able to offer something. Michael DiRuggiero, however, was clearly the most educated about Einstein.

Albert Einstein, 1896.
Courtesy of Manhattan Rare Book Company

The first known signed photograph of Einstein was likely taken when Einstein was seventeen years old to commemorate his graduation from the gymnasium in Aarau, Switzerland. A formal studio portrait, this image records Einstein during what he would describe as one of the happiest years of his life.

Albert Einstein, 1921.
Courtesy of Manhattan Rare Book Company

Einstein came to England for the first time in 1921 at the invitation of Viscount Haldane, and lectured at King’s College London and the University of Manchester during his visit. The photograph by Walter Benington captures a delicate expression from Einstein on one of his first grand tours, and Einstein presented this inscribed copy to Ruth Blumgart. Blumgart’s father, “Judge Mack” as Einstein writes in the inscription,  would later work with Einstein to help victims of Nazism, including many prominent scientists, escape Europe in the following decades.

Albert Einstein, 1938.
Courtesy of Manhattan Rare Book Company

Commissioned by Life magazine to photograph Einstein, Lotte Jacobi had already built an impressive reputation by 1938 – not least, in Einstein’s eyes, for her photography. Being Jewish, Jacobi had abandoned her successful career in Germany in 1935 after rejecting the Nazis’ offer of “honorary Aryan status.” This was undoubtedly one of the reasons why Einstein admired her so. Another was likely that Jacobi disliked the formal studio techniques of photographic portraiture, and this images of Einstein dressed casually in his favorite leather bomber jacket attests to Jacobi’s unorthodox style. In fact, Life initially rejected this image for their profile on Einstein, saying it did not treat him “with enough respect,” but the image won later acclaim upon being exhibited at MoMA for their 1942 20th Century Portraits exhibition alongside many iconic painted and photographic portraits of the century.

Albert Einstein, 1948.
Courtesy of Manhattan Rare Book Company

Yousuf Karsh’s images of Einstein are perhaps among the most well-known and celebrated today. Having survived the Armenian genocide and fled to Canada, Karsh became one of the greatest working portrait photographers of his day, and this meticulously lit image was chosen as the frontispiece for the 1949 book Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist. Einstein inscribed this image in German with the message, “The grace of clarity often comes to you, in uniting precision and depth.”

Albert Einstein, 1954.
Courtesy of Manhattan Rare Book Company

One year before his death, Einstein was photographed by Frederick Plaut. Seated in Princeton home surrounded by books while gazing slightly away from the camera, Einstein and his serenity in the home he built in America prevail in this image from his final years. Plaut describes taking this photograph: “There must be a moment in every professional photographer’s life when he is so in awe of his subject that he can scarcely focus his camera.”

Fine Books: Would you say that collecting grew out of the need to learn?

Gary: Absolutely. What I found over the years, like in medicine, was that I always enjoyed writing and publishing. I feel that I achieved mastery over a particular subject if I can write about it. When Michael and I started talking about [writing] a book based on the materials I had collected, that was really a good decision because from that point on, that's when I learned the most about Einstein. We agreed very quickly that we didn't want to write just another book about Einstein. What we wanted to do was feature the photographs because what I saw over the years was that you can really see in these photographs the change in the man as he grows older. It's like a visual biography.

Fine Books: What do you find so compelling about Einstein?

Gary: The ability of a single person to comprehend what the universe is. You know, what makes him different from other people? In his writings, he claimed that he really didn't have any special capabilities. He was just intensely curious, what he called his childlike curiosity. He said that this is what most people lose early in their lives. That constant asking “What is it?” and “Why?” What also fascinates me about Einstein was his basic good character, his opposition to war, and his defense of oppressed people. I mean, he was human, and he had his failings, but I just view him as an amazing person.

Courtesy of Manhattan Rare Book Company

Starting in 1925, the French Academy began sending large sheets to important scientists, writers and intellectuals – asking them to inscribe it with a statement on the concept of peace, with the idea of collecting an anthology of these messages. The World League for Peace later released a limited edition of prints from the submissions under the title Pax Mundi: livre d’or de la paix, and this is Einstein’s unique manuscript submission. Translated from the German, it reads, “No person has the moral right to call himself a Christian or Jew so long as he is prepared to engage in systematic murder at the command of an authority, or allow himself to be used in any way in the service of war or the preparation for it.”

Fine Books: Michael, I know you’ve built a lot of collections with other people. What's special about this one?

Michael: Part of it is the singular focus of it. And also Gary's enthusiasm. I mean, it started out with signed photographs, but then we had this idea of filling in his life. So the scientific papers came in and it became like a timeline of his life, visually. There's a lot of Einstein material out there, but even though the collection is so vast, it is fairly focused. Gary wanted a particular focus on science rather than Einstein's politics. There's a little bit of politics in here, but that could be a whole other rabbit hole.

Courtesy of Manhattan Rare Book Company

Einstein book cover.

Fine Books: How do you think about what “fits” in the collection?

Michael: There are a lot of things that are like, “Oh this has to go in the collection.” Which is funny because there are certain [scientific] papers that aren't super well-known, but when you start digging into them, you see comments by [other] scientists like, if they had just written this paper, it would have made them famous in the scientific world. But in Einstein's body of work, it's sort of minor.

Fine Books: Is there some item for the collection that you feel would be the Holy Grail that you don't have?

Michael: Maybe it's the notes that Einstein and Michele Besso worked on leading to general relativity that sold for $12 million dollars recently. It’s probably healthier to focus on what you can get than what you haven't gotten, right?

Gary: Well, I'll tell you one thing that I regret letting go that I could have had, and I haven't seen again since. [Einstein] gave his neighbor at his summer place a handwritten postcard. The neighbor asked him to explain relativity, and he wrote out three separate lines that explained the theory of relativity. If that ever becomes available again, we'll take a serious look at it.

Interior page of Einstein.
Image by FB&C

Interior page of Einstein.

Interior page of Einstein.
Image by FB&C

Interior page of Einstein.

Interior page of Einstein.
Image by FB&C

Interior page of Einstein.

Fine Books: Finally, your book is really beautiful. How did you decide on the look and feel of it?

Gary: Well, I think the decision about the size of the book was a simple one, because I felt that if we're going to publish a book where other people can experience these photographs, they should be essentially exact reproductions. So, that meant that it had to be a large size book. And then the other factor was that it had to be of the highest quality, so we needed a publisher who was able to use the best quality paper, the best techniques for reproduction in terms of inks and colors.

Michael: An important element is that, from the beginning, we said we wanted a beautiful book for a general audience. Gary and I would keep telling each other "Simplify, simplify, simplify." We wanted anyone to be able to pick up and understand what's written. So it's not written for a scientific audience. But the decision to make the book beautiful made me think of this book designer, Yolanda Cuomo. I have a friend who's a well-established photographer, and Yolanda designed many of his books. I told her we wanted to do a book on Einstein but to really think of it as a photo book. And then, when she wanted to add more deluxe elements like overlay paper that might cost more, Gary would say “Yes.”

Gary: Cost wasn’t a factor. It was about the quality.

Michael: Exactly. Exactly.