Helene Hanff, 84 Charing Cross Road

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 (orig. pub. 1970)
2 hrs (approx) on 2 compact discs
ISBN: 9781405502559