The unvoiced thoughts and ideas of a septegenarian.


on March 5, 2012


I want to tell you about one of my favorite books – 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, an American playwright.  It was published in 1970 and later made into a stage play, television play and film starring Anne Bancroft, Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench..

The book consists of a series of letters over a twenty-year period between the author, and Frank Doel, chief  buyer of Marks & Co.,Londonantiquarian booksellers. Over time, a long-distance friendship evolved, not only between Frank and Helene but between Helene and other staff members as well. Their letters included discussions about topics as varied as the sermons of John Donne, the coronation of Elizabeth II and how to make Yorkshire Pudding.

Hanff is a lover of all things British, longs to travel there and collects vintage books on a variety of subjects.  Her letters are charming and witty while those of the bookseller are rather staid and dry. Therein lies the books appeal for me  – her passion for England and literature. Here are just a few of the books she ordered from Marks & Co.

The CanterburyTales

On Shakespeare (Samuel Johnson)

Pepys Diary

Plato’s Four Socratic Dialogues

TheOxfordBook of English Verse (Arthur Quiller Couch)

The Life and Opinions of Tristan Shandy

Perhaps you will find the following passages as intriguing and clever as I do.

“What kind of a Pepys’ Diary do you call this? This is some busybody editor’s miserable collections of EXCERPTS from  Pepys’ diary, may he rot.  I could just spit!”

“We live in depraved, destructive and degenerate times when a bookshop – A BOOKSHOP – starts tearing up beautiful old books to use as wrapping paper.” (she orders something and adds) “Why don’t you wrap it pages LCXII and LCXIII so I can at least find out who won the battle and what war it was?”

“”Where is jan. 12 1668, where his wife chased him round the bedroom with a red-hot poker?”

“I enclose two limp singles. I will make do with this until you find me a real Pepys. THEN I will rip up this ersatz page, AND WRAP THINGS IN IT.”

“I just threw out a book somebody gave me. It was a version of what it was like to live in the time of Oliver Cromwell only the slob didn’t LIVE in the time of Oliver Cromwell so how the hell does he know what it was like? Anybody who wants to know what it was like to live in the time of Oliver Cromwell can curl up on the sofa with Milton on his pro side and Walton on  his left and they’ll not only tell him what it was like, they’ll take him there.”

I trust that is enough to demonstrate Hanff’s wit and her passion for literature and, more specifically, all things British.  For many years she dreamed of traveling to London, meeting Frank and standing over the graves of people like Shakespeare. It wasn’t until after Doel died and the bookshop closed that Hanff finally visited London. That trip is chronicled in her 1973 book The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.

I close this book regretting the fact I have no such passion which seems to me to be a deficit in my character.  I also close it grateful for having been introduced to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, professor of English Literature at the Universityof Cambridge, who published under the name “Q.”  My forays into Q, whom Hanff idolized, prompted me to order a copy of his Oxford Book of English Verse, and to study at some length his lectures: On the Art of Writing and On the Art of Reading. (See Hanff’s book: Q’s Legacy.)

If one comes away from reading a book not only found to be engaging, an in-depth portrait of the author, and witty, but also opens the door to further reading and teases the reader into exploring a variety of subjects, the time spent in reading that book is, indeed, time well spent. So enthralled by 84 Charing Cross Road was one  person to whom I recommended it he read it in one two-hour setting. “I couldn’t put it down,” he told me.

Julie Rose


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