When I first mentioned that Fridays were going to be reserved for letters, Laura mentioned Helene Hanff’s epistolary classic right off.
She reminded me how much I love this collection. And, so, I pulled the volume off the shelf and aimed for a re-read.
If you’re reading these words of mine, you’re (at least a bit, and probably a lot) bookish. So you’ve most likely already heard about this particular volume of uber-bookishness from many other bookish people.
But, if, despite those many recommendations, you’ve yet to find and discover it for yourself, do not wait a moment longer.
Really. You need to read this.
You need to have your own copy of it, so that you can re-read it when someone casually mentions it to you.
This is the sort of book that makes you think about multiple copies (perhaps ordered through the post), makes you hope for marginalia in second-hand copies, makes you think more about writing letters, specifically letters about books.
The story begins with (Miss) Helene Hanff writing to Marks & Co. at 84, Charing Cross Road in London England, in October 1949, in search of particular volumes from these “antiquarian booksellers”.
Miss Hanff (it takes several letters for her to be referred to in more familiar terms) has very bookish taste but a limited bookbuying-budget.
(See, you’re going to love this, if you haven’t already!)
The following November, she writes: “The books arrived safely, the Stevenson is so fine it embarrasses my orange-crate bookshelves.”
(I had orange-crate bookshelves for years. I think they call them Billy Bookcases now and market them through Ikea, because the oranges are packed in waxed cardboard.)
Three years later, she writes:
“You may add Walton’s Lives to the list of books you aren’t sending me. It’s against my principles to buy a book I haven’t read, it’s like buying a dress you haven’t tried on, but your can’t even get Walton’s Lives in a library over here.”
(Part of the fun of this volume is Miss Hanff’s sassy tone: she complains that the shop’s staff doesn’t send her enough books and she’s bookish and sassy. Somehow she pulls this off. If I tried it, I’d come off as bookish and bitchy.)
And, later that year, she writes: “Well, if your books cost what they’re worth I couldn’t afford them!”
(I think it’s this kind of thing that filed off the edge of the sassy-ness and endeared her to the shop’s staff, some of whom, at least, must have loved books and prints as much as she did.)
In re-reading this, I was determined to read it in a burst. (If you have read it before, you will know why I simply couldn’t put it down at the 3/4 mark, when normally a book would have you thinking about making a cup of tea or getting a snack. I knew that I wouldn’t pick it up again if I did. My favourite part of this book is the middle.)
My favourite part begins with Miss Hanff’s friend Maxine’s bit. It’s Maxine’s only contribution to the collection of letters, and it appears because she has visited the shop and is reporting back to her friend.
It is the loveliest old shop straight out of Dickens, you would go absolutely out of your mind over it.”
And it just gets better from there. Really.
I’d love it if you’d write me a little letter below and tell me if you’re planning to read this, re-read this, buy this, what the weather’s like. Whatever.