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Helene Hanff, 84 Charing Cross Road

February 19, 2011

Before you all (well, those of you of a certain age at least) gasp and wonder how it could be that I haven’t read this delightful little tome before, I assure you that I have. However, on our drive home today from our week at the coast, we listened to an unabridged audiobook version, and I can’t resist sharing some thoughts from this most recent acquaintance with the book.

For those of you who haven’t read it, 84 Charing Cross Road could I suppose be described as a sort of epistolary memoir. It comprises the correspondence between an American writer and bibliophile, Helene Hanff, and Frank Doel of Marks & Co, a London bookshop specialising in secondhand and antiquarian books. The correspondence starts in 1949 and covers the next two decades. Over time, others in the Marks & Co family join in, but the essential relationship is always that between bookbuyer Helene and bookseller Frank. In a horrible bit of blurb writing, it is described on the back of my (almost antiquarian itself) paperback as “the very simple story of the love affair between …”. Well, that cheapens it because it’s not a love affair in the usual sense. It’s a business relationship that also becomes a friendship. He is married, she is not … and no romance ever ensues.

I am not going to write a full review of the “story”, about how Helene sent “care packages” to the staff of Marks & Co to brighten up their postwar rations-ridden lives, about its humour and humanity. Rather, I thought I’d just share a couple of the comments she, a true bibliophile, makes about books and reading.

One is to do with marginalia. Hanff, like me, likes marginalia. She does it herself, and she likes it in the secondhand books she buys. She says in response to a book received as a gift:

I wish you hadn’t been so over-courteous about putting the inscription on a card instead of on the flyleaf . It’s the bookseller coming out in you all, you were afraid you’d decrease its value. You would have increased it for the present owner. (And possibly for the future owner. I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning  pages someone else turned, and reading passages some one long gone has called my attention to.) (16 April 1951)

Another year, another book gift, and here is her response:

I do think it’s a very uneven exchange of Christmas presents. You’ll eat yours up in a week and have nothing left to show for it by New Year’s Day. I’ll have mine until the day I die – and die happy in the knowledge that I’m leaving it behind for someone else to love. I shall sprinkle pale pencil marks through it pointing out the best passages to some book-lover yet unborn. (12 December 1952).

Hanff was clearly a slow-reader and liked re-reading, but she was not sentimental about books per se. Here she is on managing her books:

I houseclean my books every spring and throw out those I’m never going to read again like I throw out clothes I’m never going to wear again. It shocks everybody. My friends are peculiar about books. They read all the bestsellers, they get through them as fast as possible, I think they skip a lot. And they NEVER read anything a second time so they don’t remember a word of it a year later. But they are profoundly shocked to see me drop a book in the wastebasket or give it away. The way they look at it, you buy a book, you read it, you put it on your shelf, you never open it again for the rest of your life BUT YOU DON’T THROW IT OUT! NOT IF IT HAS A HARD COVER ON IT! Why not? I personally can’t think of anything less sacrosanct that a bad book or even a mediocre book. (18 Sept 1952)

Ellen of Fat Books and Thin Women would agree I think. Check out her recent post in praise of re-reading, and see for yourselves. Those of you who’ve been reading my blog for a while will know that I too am not averse to a bit of re-reading. There is a special joy in revisiting loved books and learning from them anew, isn’t there?

Finally, (only) because I’m missing my Jane Austen meeting today due to the aforesaid travel, I will share with you her discovery of Jane Austen. Hanff, you see, was not one for “stories”. “It’s just stories. I don’t like stories” she wrote in an undated letter around 1963/64. She preferred history (“i-was-there-books”), essays, poetry and the like. However, in 1952, she discovered Jane Austen “and went out of my mind over Pride & Prejudice …”. I’m sure I would have liked Helene Hanff.

Helene Hanff
84 Charing Cross Road (Audio CD)
Read by Juliet Stevenson and John Nettles
Hachette Audio
2 hrs (approx) on 2 compact discs
ISBN: 9781405502559

19 Comments leave one →
  1. February 19, 2011 11:25 pm

    I like your marginalia too 😉 Am mightily enjoying your notes in The Women In Black, in fact!

    I think I would’ve liked Helene too. Care packages are the sign of a wonderful person, in my opinion.

    • February 19, 2011 11:36 pm

      Oh, are you? Many of them are pretty banal … I wonder what it’s like reading The women in black after Northanger Abbey. Very different, but both social commentary with rather young girls featuring.

      • February 20, 2011 12:04 pm

        The Women in Black is definitely whizzing by in comparison 😉

  2. February 20, 2011 5:27 am

    Although we never met or corresponded Helene Hanff is someone I count as one of my greatest friends simply because I know we would have got on like a house on fire. And, when I am feeling really down or ill, this is the book with which I take to my bed for comfort and to be convinced that all is well with the world really. What more can you ask from a friend?

    • February 20, 2011 10:38 am

      Nothing really, that I can think of. She is so generous, funny and honest … and a true lover of reading.

  3. February 20, 2011 11:59 am

    Ah-ha! Converted to audio books??
    Lisa *chuckle*

    • February 20, 2011 1:47 pm

      Cheeky! Just dippin’ me toes in Lisa! Actually, I can see that when Len retires and we do more road trips, we will listen to more. This is one I gave my mother-in-law. She’s now moved into a hostel and I’ve kept the audiobooks she’s decided she’s heard enough so I have a little collection to start with! (The Ruth Park was one I’d given her too … as was The lady in the van.)

  4. February 20, 2011 1:00 pm

    This sounds like a book I need to read. It’s amazing to me that I can have read so many books and still have so many unread. Helen would like my books — I even correct library books, but will actually argue with writers in the margins of books I own. Like Helen, I read slowly, to really absorb what is written. I remember books for years and sometimes decades afterward — which actually makes it harder to get rid of books, because you want to be able to find that bit you underlined to get it right should you wish to quote it.

    Thanks for the introduction. It sounds as though I can add my name to the list of those who would have enjoyed knowing Helen Hanff.

    • February 20, 2011 1:51 pm

      Thanks WM … I think you would love it. Apparently it’s been continuously in print since it was first published in about 1973.

  5. February 20, 2011 9:32 pm

    Like you, I remain unconvinced by audiobooks, but this one has two excellent narrators – maybe that contributed a little?

    I must read this book!

    • February 20, 2011 9:45 pm

      Yes, if I were doing a proper review I’d have commented on the narrators. They were great. And there was a little special extra interview with them at the end. They apparently both didn’t hesitate when they were offered the job. Do read it … it’s very quick.

  6. February 21, 2011 2:53 pm

    This was my favourite quote from the book (which I read last year, along with its sequel).

    “I despair of ever getting it through everybody’s head that I am not interested in bookshops, I am interested in what’s written in the books. I don’t browse in bookshops, I browse in libraries, where you can take a book home and read it, and if you like it you go to a bookshop and buy it”.

    I like it because it is so differentto my own perspective. I love browsing in bookshops, especially second hand bookshops, whereas in libraries I would rather be in and out with what I want. But I like her approach, its very economical.

    • February 21, 2011 4:11 pm

      Thanks for sharing that Becky. It relates to the re-reading concept I described doesn’t it? There are so many wonderful little observations and personal approaches to reading in this book that, whether we agree or not, we can’t help relating to the passion of another reader, can we.

  7. February 21, 2011 11:49 pm

    Thanks for the mention.

    I’ve never heard of this before but I love the way that Hanff writes about marginalia: “I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages some one long gone has called my attention to.”

    On a somewhat related note, yesterday the New York Times published a piece about the future of marginalia. (Only SOMEWHAT related because it’s more about what the digitization of reading materials is going to do the preservation of marginal notes, but it’s fun to read about what people like Mark Twain were writing in their books.)

    • February 22, 2011 8:59 am

      Thanks for that article. Last year I read another NY Times article on Marginalia. It’s an enjoyable topic. I was going to out myself here as a retired librarian/archivist and therefor very interested in the whole issue of what we are losing in the digital world, and then I decided I’d better not as we are blamed for the reduction in marginalia in the 20th century! I’m thinking that 20th century saw the rise of the free public library and that librarians naturally discouraged people writing in books not their own. I annotate my own books, but never those I’ve borrowed.

      I laughed at the last sentence of the article … I got some chocolate stains on my book (my own copy) yesterday and nearly annotated it … but I didn’t have any good excuse like being in love! Just clumsiness when getting my afternoon cuppa!

  8. February 25, 2011 6:57 am

    Oh how I love this book! My husband and I read it just a few months before we visited London in 2001 and we made a visit to 84 Charing Cross Road only to find a blue commemoration plaque on the side of a building that was, at that time, a cafe. It was raining but it didn’t stop us from taking our pictures standing next to the plaque while everyone hurrying by looked at us like the nutty tourists we were.

    • February 25, 2011 8:52 am

      And what’s wrong with being a nutty tourist!? That’s a great story Stefanie. I love travelling with a literary nose – visiting sites and places that have meaning and connections.

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  1. 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff | Iris on Books

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