Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Books and Letters of a Bygone Era

"Any book that is passionate, gorgeously written and afterwards haunting.
If a book isn't all those things, it is, as Willa Cather said, a cereal
box. I want to eat real books."
Kim Addonizio is a fiction writer, poet and teacher

Very true, Kim, who is a writer after my own heart.

I finished re-reading Helene Hanff's marvelous "84 Charing Cross Road" last night and I must note that it stands the test of time brilliantly. I first read the book about 26 years ago, and soon discovered that my best friend Muff Larson was also a fan of Hanffs, mainly because her mother, author Jean Russell Larson, was a correspondent of Hanff's, having started writing letters back and forth years earlier, one author to another.

Soon after, Muff and I began seeking out any of Hanffs books that we could find, and were delighted with each new volume, from "Underfoot in Show Business" to "Q's Legacy." When Helene Hanff passed away in 1997, Muff and I mourned her passing with a re-reading of all the volumes of her work that we could lay hands on, and then spent an evening chatting about them over the telephone.

In 84 Charing Cross Road, Hanff publishes her 20 year correspondence with Frank Doel, an employee of Marks and Company bookstore in England. She regales Doel with her love of non fiction classics and insights into her life as a screenwriter living in New York City, and Doel in turn supplies her with gorgeous copies of books for very low prices that she would be unable to find in the US. He also tells her a bit about life in post WW2 England, with its rations and soforth, and Hanff responds as a true American, by sending packages of meat and eggs, sugar and nylon stockings over the pond to supplement the rations of the bookstore employees and their elderly neighbors.

The long distance friendship that develops between Doel and Hanff is achingly beautiful and poignant, and the funny/tender moments still bring a tear to the eye of the reader, even after multiple readings. I am always stricken, too, by Frank Doels wife Nora's letter to Hanff after his sudden death of a burst appendix, in which she relates that she was somewhat jealous of Hanff and Doels relationship, because her husband loved Hanffs letters, her sense of humor and her book addiction so much.

Amazing, too, is the fact that this kind of letter writing and beautiful English editions of books being shipped to America for a pittance are long gone, a genteel and lovely thing of the past that will only be mourned by bibliophiles of a certain age, who remember reading tomes that were published on creamy paper stock and bound in leather, with fancy flyleaf designs and gilt edges. It is sad that real old English bookshops, like newspaper journalism, have become things of the past, a bygone era and a better time.

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