Topic #3: Read a book about books
Book: 84 Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff
Publisher: Sphere, 2007 ( Originally published by Grossman, 1970)
In October 1950, NYC-based writer Helene Hanff approaches a small London bookstore (Marks & Co.), inquiring about some books. She is a “poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books,” she explains in her letter, “and all the things [she] want[s] are impossible to get here,” at least in a format affordable or satisfactory to her. So begins 84 Charing Cross Road, an epistolary memoir consisting of selections of the 20-year correspondence between Hanff and the staff of Marks & Co., chief among which is the bookseller Frank Doel (which, if you are wondering how to pronounce it, he helpfully explains rhymes with “Noel”).
For a work recording a 20-year correspondence, 84 Charing Cross Road is in fact quite short (less than 200 pages). It is not perfect – for example, some letters are missing (as is to be expected given the length of the period of time in which they were exchanged – a lot happens in 20 years!). The discussed material, especially prices of books, can also be a little confusing. Just as Hanff herself needs English pounds to be “translated” into dollars, for example, so we may need to translate 1950s/60s/70s values into modern equivalents maybe once to get a sense of how much everything would actually cost – after all, it makes no sense for a first edition of Newman’s Discourses on the Scope and Nature of University Education, dating to the 1850s, to cost $6 a hundred years later – except in 2017 this amounts to approx. $60, which is much more reasonable.
An interesting, albeit expected, perk of the book, is that it records historical events and circumstances. For example, we get to learn (or, in my case, be reminded) through it that up until the mid- 50s food was still rationed in Britain (as a consequence of WWII). Hanff, knowing about the rations, sends her friends in London parcels of food with goodies such as eggs and ham for the major holidays until the rationing ends in 1954. The letters also discuss the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953 (the first such to be televised, and both the staff of Marks & Co and Hanff take advantage of that). In 1960, Hanff makes a joke about Nixon and Kennedy, reflecting on the famous election. These details are not only interesting for establishing a background or even for learning a little bit of history. Rather, the letters add more dimension to the historical events, reminding us that real people lived through and experienced them.
Hanff’s witty and quite candid voice and humor balance wonderfully with Doel’s somewhat more constrained voice, resulting in some hilarious exchanges, such as Doel remarking “I must tell you that one of the young inmates here confessed that until he read your letter he never knew that England had ever owned ‘the States.'” The warmth of their friendship is touching and one of the book’s biggest assets, the other one being their discussion of books. Hanff in particular produced some invaluable gems. For example, after reading Sir Richard Francis Burton’s translation of Catullus (whose poetry can be particularly racy at times), she exclaims: “This one got knighted for tuning Catullus – caTULLus – into Victorian hearts-and-flowers.” On another occasion, after successfully receiving Alexis de Tocqueville’s Journey to America (1831–1832), she announces: “He sits around looking smug because everything he said were true…”
My relationship with this book has been an interesting one, beginning with the moment that I discovered it. I was on a very brief visit to Oxford at the time, and decided to stop by one of their landmark bookstores – Blackwell’s – where this book happened to be neatly displayed. I had not heard of Hanff nor her work before this, but the book’s cover caught my attention, and its blurb convinced me to purchase it. It still strikes me as slightly odd that I, an American, bought in Britain a book about an American writer’s correspondence with a (sadly no longer existing) British bookstore. The actual contents of the book touched me on an even more personal level, however. At the time that I discovered it, I had been living back in the United States for a mere three months after spending a year in the United Kingdom while pursuing my Master’s Degree. Hanff never had the chance to visit the UK before 84 Charing Cross Road‘s publication, but, as evident in the book, she forged and maintained strong friendships there. Perhaps this is my own way of reflecting on the events in my life during the past year, yet the endless parallels I found in this book’s contents, 50 years after its publication, made me love it that much more. And although, like Hanff, I do not often buy books I have not read, there is no question that this was a correct choice. Between the humor, friendship, historical references, and love for books, 84 Charing Cross Road is a small, invaluable gem. I strongly recommend it.