What a nugget! A tiny little book. It’s less than a hundred pages, and yet it’s taken me forever to read – in part because I took my time, savoring every paragraph, and in part because I got halfway through and went back to the beginning and started it all over again. They’re letters, after all, so they’re meant to be read and re-read. I think Helene Hanff would agree. In one letter she talks about her yearly ritual of spring cleaning her bookshelves, and throwing out anything she’s not going to read again. “My friends are peculiar about books,” she writes. “They read all the best sellers, they get through them as fast as possible … 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 the 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 than a bad book or even a mediocre book.”
This is a good and proper ode to bibliophilia if ever there was one. A genuine celebration of books, not just what they contain – words, ideas, personalities, histories of their own – but the thing of the book itself. “I’m almost embarrassed to handle the soft vellum and heavy cream-colored pages. Being used to the dead-white paper and stiff cardboardy covers of American books, I never knew a book could be such a joy to the touch,” Helene writes in November of 1949, about a new Stevenson Frank Doel has sent her from London.
In another letter she writes, “The Newman arrived almost a week ago and I’m just beginning to recover. I keep it on the table with me all day, every now and then I stop typing and reach over and touch it. Not because it’s a first edition; I just never saw a book so beautiful. I feel vaguely guilty about owning it.”
A reverence and light-heartedness go hand in hand.
On receiving as a gift Elizabethan Poets, she replies: “Thank you for the beautiful book. I’ve never owned a book before with pages edged all round in gold … I shall try very hard not to get gin and ashes all over it, it’s really much too fine for the likes of me.”
New books; old books – there’s a distinct appreciation for both.
“I do love secondhand books that open to the page some previous owner read oftenest. The day Hazlitt came he opened to `I hate to read new books,’ and I hollered `Comrade!’ to whoever owned it before me.”
Another time she writes, “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.”
Her ALL CAPS outbursts are absolutely fabulous – as hilarious and unexpected as they are jestfully frightening.
WHAT KIND OF A BLACK PROTESTANT BIBLE IS THIS?
WHAT KIND OF A PEPYS’ DIARY DO YOU CALL THIS?
AND I NEED READING MATTER, NOW DON’T START SITTING AROUND, GO FIND ME SOME BOOKS.
DO YOU MEAN TO SIT THERE AND TELL ME YOU’VE BEEN PUBLISHING THESE MAMMOTH CATALOGUES ALL THESE YEARS AND THIS IS THE FIRST TIME YOU EVER BOTHERED TO SEND ME ONE? THOU VARLET?
It’s proper bibliorage, and I say: WHAT COULD BE BETTER?
Her voice, especially in these moments of delighted outrage, reminds me so much of my friend Janet; I think that’s been part of the pleasure I’ve taken in reading this, and part of the reason that it took so long. She felt present, somehow, through Hanff’s wit, her affection and generosity, her playful bossiness (Frank! Go find me Tristram Shandy!), her high standards, and her joy.
84, Charing Cross Road is a celebration, but it’s more than that; it’s a recognition of the role books play, the company they bring, and the life that they give. “Have you got Sam Pepys’ diary over there?” Hanff asks in a post script in October 1950. “I need him for long winter evenings.”
Someone on Goodreads said you could read it in about two hours; Hanff’s obituary in the Times suggested just one. It took me two months. I just liked knowing it was there – unfinished – waiting. I wanted it to last. Now that I’ve finished reading my library copy the only thing to do will be to go out and buy one of my own like she would have done – so I can keep it on the shelf and pull it down from time to time and read it all again.