Inside a Book Editor’s Legendary Home Library

Madeline Kripke has been known to walk visitors through her shelves with a flashlight in hand and card catalogue in her head.

Photo: Wendy Goodman
Photo: Wendy Goodman

As a child growing up, the daughter of a rabbi in Omaha, Madeline Kripke always fantasized about living in a library. Now she is a retired book editor, and her Greenwich Village apartment is somewhat legendary among her scholarly circles for its collection of some 20,000 tomes, stacked on every possible surface and in three warehouse units. (Obscure slang books are of special interest: police slang, vaudeville slang, bebop slang.) She’s been known to walk visitors through her shelves with a flashlight in hand and card catalogue in her head. “l always wanted to be something of an iconoclast,” Kripke says, recalling her urge to break out of her conservative upbringing. “I was a very spirited child.”

Ceiling to floor, every shelf, ledge, and nook is piled high with thousands of books. Even the ladder is used as a surface. “As you can see, my appetite for books has exceeded my shelves,” Kripke says. Photo: Wendy Goodman
Her devotion to dictionaries also includes ephemera like this circa-1830 handwritten ledger sheet by Noah Webster, which calculates the costs of developing the early dictionary. “This is a complete rarity,” Kripke adds. Photo: Wendy Goodman
Dried roses accent a quiet corner. They were sent 16 years ago by Kripke’s father, Rabbi Myer Kripke, as a congratulatory gift for first when she moved into the apartment. Photo: Wendy Goodman
The 1,200-square-foot apartment needed work. “It wasn’t quite my taste,” Kripke recalls. She added the custom glass-front cabinets, along with crown molding on the ceiling. But soon the bookcases filled up, and the collection burst onto the ledges below. Photo: Wendy Goodman
Kripke’s mantel assortment included a large poster and card of Noah Webster and his books, an antique Carnival Glass bottle, and an old Chinese puppet found at a flea market (“His face expresses so much serenity”). Photo: Wendy Goodman
While she is smitten with lexicographers from the past, a modern-day poster of Bruce Springsteen adorns her bedroom wall. “l liked to listen to him when I’d go for my walks,” says Kripke, who, in addition to editing for Parnassus and Macmillan, was also once a frequent rower in Central Park.
This amusing image is tacked onto the French door leading into her bedroom. It’s of Sir James Murray, editor-in-chief of the Oxford English Dictionary. “He was quite an august personage, but it’s evident that he had a sense of fun and whimsy,” Kripke notes. Photo: Wendy Goodman
From 1796, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue features pages with inlaid, delicately mounted illustrations and is a favorite in the collection. “This is an art that is no longer practiced,” Kripke says. This entry highlights Matthias Buchinger, the 18th-century artist who was born with no hands or feet but created incredibly detailed etchings. Photo: Wendy Goodman
Fond of showing books in a beam of light, Kripke owns about 14 flashlights. She even hooks a miniature one to the waist of her pants for use when scanning titles. Photo: Wendy Goodman
Once opened, a miniature magnifying glass in this dictionary locket’s metal case allows readers to see the tiny letters and teensy detailed engravings. Diminutive dictionary lockets are beloved in the assortment. They are meant to be worn on a chain around the neck. Photo: Wendy Goodman
Kripke moved to New York City in 1961 to study English at Barnard College. Far from her conservative upbringing in Omaha, she was immersed in the Greenwich Village scene. She’s lived there ever since. Photo: Wendy Goodman
This illustration lists the price for a prostitute: “a tramper/a pint and a hog.” “Hog is an old British slang term for a shilling. And I’ve always assumed the pint here is a quantity of alcoholic beverage,” Kripke decodes. “But I could never quite figure out tramper.” Photo: Wendy Goodman
Inside a Book Editor’s Legendary Home Library