Reading Helene Hanff in 2017

hanff-1A few weeks ago, I finally got around to reading Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road. (It doesn’t escape me that I’m always “getting around” to reading things, but here we are). It’s a slim text, comprised solely of Hanff’s correspondence with Frank Doel, chief buyer at the antiquarian bookshop Marks & Co., and other members of its staff.

Hanff–whose reading tastes were heavily influenced by writer and literary critic, Arthur Quiller-Couch–had a fondness for the Classics and non-fiction accounts. (Don’t get her started on the journals of Samuel Pepys!) She quickly found that Marks & Co. could cater to her tastes. But what starts as a simple request for a specific text turns into a decades long correspondence.

Frank Doel, ever the professional, did not initially reciprocate Hanff’s teasing, lighthearted letters. At the time, Englanders suffered from post-war food shortages that required rationing essential everyday items. Hanff took the time to send various foodstuffs, such as meat and eggs, which the staff of Marks & Co. greatly appreciated. The softened Doel then became a confidant of sorts to the eccentric Hanff.

It’s difficult not to feel a great kinship with Helene Hanff. Good readers gravitate towards each other from across time and space, and the world Hanff created for herself through literature and the written word is everything I aspire to in my little life. Her greatest passions about this translation or that, or the quality of various editions are often humorous, something that clearly amused Frank Doel and his colleagues.

The most striking aspect of 84, Charing Cross Road, though, is the intimacy and sense of close friendship that comes through in these letters. Not only did Hanff build herself a world through literature, she built relationships across the ocean through a mutual love and respect for words.

At times when things seem overwhelming, books like this are deeply comforting. To relate to another person’s obsessive reading habits is one of my greatest pleasures when reading memoirs or non-fiction accounts. Helene Hanff’s particular brand of wise-cracking humor and unbridled enthusiasm just makes it all the better.

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