The Who The What and The When by Jenny Volvovski, review by Todd Robins

In my next life, I’m coming back as a book collector with holes in my Aubusson carpet similar to those in Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Cambridge domicile. He used old copies of Country Life magazine to plug the gaps, as shown in Books Do Furnish a Room, which is one of my all-time favorite coffee table books. Ultimately, though, I aspire to the kind of book collecting greatness achieved by the poet and translator Richard Howard, as depicted in an overleaf of the same book (the spread has to be seen to be believed).

I never know if I want a coffee table book until I sit in the chair at Watermark to look through the pages. Recently, I bought The Who The What And The When: 65 Artists Illustrate The Secret Sidekicks Of History, because of the premise, along with the short, descriptive essays, and the illustrations.

Have you ever heard of Mary Moody Emerson? I hadn’t. She was born in 1774 and died in 1863. She stood four feet, three inches tall. Qualification for being included in The Who And The What? She was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s aunt. Described as “brilliant and boisterous,” Mary was a self-educated, original thinker who “offered visionary encouragement that would prove to be the strongest force in Emerson’s life.” Her literary range, according to essayist Cara Cannella, included “Plato, Coleridge, Wollstonecraft, Rousseau, and Goethe.” In addition, she introduced Emerson to the writings of Eastern mystics that would underlie his transcendentalist philosophy. (Thanks, Mary.)

Next, you might flip to the spread on Anna Dostoyevskaya, wife of the author of The Brothers Karamazov. When she met him to work as his stenographer, Fyodor was in debt, not to mention “confused, anxious, helpless, lonely, irritable, and almost ill.” He was convinced that he could get the upper hand on his financial situation by playing roulette. With Anna’s help, however, he wrote The Gambler in less than a month, and he therefore married her. (Dear Anna: Thanks for helping Fyodor with that book. I loved it.) And while I’m handing out awards, special mention must be given to Laura Callaghan for her illustration of Anna Dostoyevskaya.

The prospective coffee table book is only as good as the conversation to be imagined in your living room. For me, on the subject of The Who And The What, the talk goes something like this:

TR: I wouldn’t mind being a sidekick someday if Laura Callaghan does the artwork.

Guest: Is that a hole in your Aubusson carpet?

TR: Shall I plug it with Country Life magazine?

Guest: Yes.

The Who, the What, and the When: 65 Artists Illustrate the Secret Sidekicks of History Cover Image
$24.95
ISBN: 9781452128276
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Chronicle Books - October 14th, 2014