Sunday, September 04, 2016

84, Charing Cross Road

84, Charing Cross Road
by Helene Hanff

I have a list of books on books that I want to read, and I finally got to read this one today. I read the electronic version but I would love to get my hands on a print copy for keeps. 

The book is non-fiction. It consists only of letters that spanned 20 years between a bibliophile scriptwriter in New York with a buyer in a bookstore in London. It began with Helene Hanff, the American scriptwriter who wrote the first letter in 1949 to Marks & Co., Booksellers at 84, Charing Cross Road, London. She was soon corresponding with the book buyer Frank Doel, some of the staff in the bookstore, even Frank's wife, daughter and neighbour. 

It's been called a "charming record of bibliophilia, cultural difference, and imaginative sympathy," what with the entertaining correspondence between an outspoken New Yorker and a restrained Londoner or what she referred to as one with "proper English reserve".

Here are some of my favourite parts:

I don’t look anywhere else any more. Why should I run all the way down to 17th St. to buy dirty, badly made books when I can buy clean, beautiful ones from you without leaving the typewriter? From where I sit, London’s a lot closer than 17th Street.

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.)

My friends are peculiar about books. They read all the best sellers, 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. 

I personally can’t think of anything less sacrosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book.

If you happen to pass by 84 Charing Cross Road, kiss it for me? I owe it so much.

And I also like what Anne Bancroft wrote in the introduction:

Like the people who win our hearts, the books we come to love can introduce themselves in the strangest ways.

...this lovely volume reveals an awful lot about what books provide: a way of reaching out across time and space to friends and strangers, and to the absent presences that play such a large part in all our lives.


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