Marvelous, simply marvelous! It warmed my heart.
This charming and informative book is a collection of letters Helene Hanff, a writer from New York, exchanged with Frank Doel, an employee of a secondhand bookstore in London. Their correspondence started in 1949, as a request for a rare book, and continued for 20 years, until Doel’s death.
From professional and formal, it soon developed into personal and intimate. Besides the books-relevant information, some letters also mention vacations and new apartments, health issues and cake recipes. My only regret about this book is that it’s too short. It doesn’t include all the letters, not even half of them. Sometimes it skips entire years, but I guess the author had to choose the best for her book.
The letters glow with the love for books, mostly non-fiction. That’s what Hanff liked and what she ordered. The book itself, tender and humorous, is highly educational as well.
It is a must for any connoisseur of British non-fiction but it could also satisfy many other, vastly different cravings.
A history buff would find a treasure trough of historical facts on the pages. Did you know, for example, that in 1950, five years after the WWII, England was still rationing most products? Or that there was a special organization in Europe that sent food parcels to England? You could order those parcels from America to deliver anywhere in England, and Hanff took advantage of this service more than once.
A lover of written humor would enjoy her snarky and pointed commentaries about some translations and the state of book publishing in America in general, compared to England.
A purist of English would relish the letters, too. Their language is wonderful, expressive and brief, not a word wasted. I read Hanff’s letters and couldn’t stop smiling. They were so alive, reflecting the living, breathing, and astute personality of their writer. On the British side, the letters were much more reserved, showcasing the difference between Americans and British.
I visited London once, years ago, and I have been to Charing Cross Road, the street of bookstores. I don’t know if they’re still there, and I probably didn’t visit Hanff’s particular bookstore, but I remember the feeling of joyful anticipation as I dived into one bookstore after another, each one with its own identity. One sold maps, atlases, and travel memoirs. Another specialized in theatre and music. The third one had trays upon trays of out-of-print, leather bound volumes.
Reading this book reminded me of that trip. It infused me with nostalgia, not about the old books mentioned in the letters (I don’t read much non-fiction) but about the bookstores and booksellers, so erudite and dedicated to their trade. Nowadays, most people buy books online, and the booksellers are becoming a dying breed, like bookstores. I miss them. This book is a tribute to this marvelous profession, to booksellers everywhere.
The prices of rare books in those times are worth a special note. In 1950, you could buy an antiquarian book for $2 or $3.
A few quotes below I couldn’t resist:
In the first letters, Doel stated the prices of the books he mailed to Hanff in pounds. She wrote in reply: “Will you please translate you prices thereafter? I don’t add too well in plain American, I haven’t a prayer of ever mastering bilingual arithmetic.”
In 1951, Hanff was writing for television, mystery scripts for Adventures of Ellery Queen series. “Did I tell you we’re not allowed to use a lipstick-stained cigarette for a clue? We’re sponsored by the Bayuk Cigar Co. and we’re not allowed to mention the word ‘cigarette.’ We can have ashtrays on the set but they can’t have any cigarette butts in them. They can’t have cigar butts either, they’re not pretty. All an ashtray can have in it is a wrapped, unsmoked Bayuk cigar.” I guess, corporate sponsors ruled even then.
“It’s against my principles to buy a book I haven’t read, it’s like buying a dress you haven’t tried on…” That’s the admirable attitude I’m slowly adopting for myself.
Treat yourself with this book, folks. Highly recommended. I wish I could give it 10 stars.