Wednesday, October 10, 2007

84 Charing Cross Road...an address and a memory

A while ago, I had placed a requisition at Landmark for a book – ’84, Charing Cross Road’ by Helene Hanff. I think I almost forgot about it, when one day last month I received a call from the store that they had acquired it…one copy…for me…and they said they would reserve it only for 5 days.
I ran to the store as if they had dug out gold for me. I don’t even know why I felt that way. I had read excerpts from the book in another age in the Reader’s Digest. I remember enjoying it at that point. But the feeling of joy upon re-discovering the book was somehow disproportionate to the feeling of enjoyment I had got then. I figured that it was the same thing as finding an old friend after you had passed out of school or college; you may not have spoken to that person ever while you both saw each other day in day out. Yet, when you meet years later, you want to hold onto that person…to the memory – even is it is of only seeing each other day in and day out. It must have been the same thing with this book.

The book is a series of letters written by Author Helene Hanff (staying in America) to a Marks & Co. located at 84, Charing Cross Road, London. She does not like the cardboard-bound American editions of her favourite books (neither do I) and is, at that point, living by modest means to be able to afford hardbound ones. Marks & Co. are acclaimed for possessing rare books and good clean second hand copies. This proposition of reading good second hand hardbound editions of books suits Miss Helene and the volley (what an inappropriate word…makes it sound like war) of letters between them begins.
Helene garnishes the letters with an acute sense of humour and they are a joy to read. Her comments on some of the books might even act as recommendations, if you are looking for any. Gradually, she starts sending the store presents for Christmas, Easter and other holidays just to show her gratitude for the priceless books they have been sending her – some are bound in leather…others in velvet and it makes me envy her to know that she had them in her hands at some point in life (OK, swagger swagger: I have a copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War bound in Silk with Gold (obviously fake) embossing…it is such a treasure! For the record, I have touched it only 5 times…I am scared of ruining it…might buy a paperback sometime so I can get my hands on the priceless wisdom inside…doesn’t look like this silk-bound edition is helping). They start sending presents back and a personal relationship between each of the store’s employees and Helene is formed as they start writing to her independently.
Helene is desperate to see London and employees of Marks and Co. keep wishing for her to pay them a visit. As one reads, one unknowingly becomes united with their desire and every time Helene announces that she is not making it that summer, you go “Oh…not this year either?” for a split second.
The letters continue to be exchanged and for quite a while (I did not pay particular attention to the exact years but my guess is it was easily 15 years or more). The visit never happens. At one point Helene tells her friend that maybe she doesn’t want to visit the store...she is afraid that the cosy idea of a small store with bookshelves made of Oak and lined with invaluable books, smelling musty from the oldness of them all will be destroyed after seeing the bookstore and she will not have anything else to look forward to.
The whole affair ends with Helene receiving a letter from the daughter of a sort of protagonist Frank Doyle (who is an employee of the store and by far the person with whom Helene has communicated the most) that he has passed away. My stomach felt pitless for a moment upon reading that. Somehow, when you are reading something so endearing, you just expect it to last forever (as is the case with all good things and people in life…we just think they are going to be there forever, knowing fully well that it is otherwise. We are so adept at fooling ourselves on purpose and then crying out loud “How could that happen?!”…what else could have happened anyway?).
In the epilogue, Helene asks the daughter (again through a letter) for permission to print these letters and receives a whole-hearted agreement. Thus is born the book that I am writing about now and that is so special to me.
I believe the book was made into a movie by the same name later…it starred Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins. I’ll try and catch up on it sometime.
My favourite sentences from the book (not verbatim):
  1. In Helene’s letter to Frank upon receiving and reading a book of unending value – “If all your books were priced at what they are worth, I could never afford them”. So true of so many books…sigh.
  2. In Helene’s letter to Frank while requesting for a copy of a book that she had lent to someone and was never returned – “I do not understand how people who would never think it appropriate to steal anything would think it was alright to steal books” :)
I sign off with a warm feeling that merely thinking about the book has filled me with…maybe I’ll go read it again tonight…as should you…asap.

3 Thinkers Pondered:

Vinni said...

i was half way there and then i lost it. i now realize, its been ages since i read a book! gosh!
thanks for reminding me about it. i'll go finish tipping point now.

Anupama said...

Hey Vinni, I recently finished Blink by the same author - Malcolm Gladwell...its pretty good...hope Tipping Point is too...I might pick it up soon...thanks for the comment!

Sowmya said...

Reminds me of a play in Hindi called Tumhari Amrita. Shabana and Farookh Sheikh. The entire play is a string of letters read by the two... should read this book...