Have you read anything by Helene Hanff? I hadn’t, until spotting this post by Melissa Wiley last month (click through for a sample Hanff letter, it’s a gem). It’s probably the title that stuck out at first: “Books that Make Me Want to Write Letters.” You know the type she means, right? The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, or C.S. Lewis’s Letters to Malcolm, or Austen’s Lady Susan have that effect. Most good books make me want to write, but only certain books make me want to dash off short, pithy, newsy, wistful, funny, literary, clever little epigrammatic notes. Hanff’s do that. Her Letters from New York and 84, Charing Cross Road charm the reader from page one.
84, Charing Cross Road begins in the late 1940s. In those days before amazon (terrifying thought in our rural region!) Hanff, a writer in New York, requested several rare titles from Marks & Co. Booksellers in London. They found the books, and so began a two-decade correspondence. In the beginning, it feels one-sided: Hanff’s boisterous, insistent missives butt up against polite, professional, reserved responses from one of the agents, Frank Doel. However, her eccentrically funny letters proved popular reading material for the bookstore staff. Over the years the correspondence grew into a long-distance friendship with Doel, his family and several other staff members at 84 Charing Cross. At any angle, the letters are an easy delight. Literary observations? Moment-in-time snapshots of New York or London? Clever jokes? Take your pick, and let the book draw you in.
Letters from New York is not actually a collection of letters, but of five-minute addresses Helene Hanff composed for BBC radio. Rather than the loud crowded New York of skyscrapers and business meetings I experience every spring, Hanff draws you into a warm, human, personal New York of small-town apartment and neighborhood community. In an easy, chatty, engaging way she ushers you through changing New York seasons, tree lightings and Christmas concerts, Thanksgiving feasts too big for her kitchen, ethnic parades, food carts, neighborhood construction, block parties, her neighbors dogs and doings, and rooftop gardens.
Need some cheerful, clever-but-light reading for a hot summer day? Try either volume. It’s hard to tell from the texts – is Hanff a delightful, funny human being? Or would she be self-important or over-bearing in person? Perhaps just chatty on paper but shy in person? Who knows, but her books are completely lovable.
[Updated to add on the letter-based-books theme: Daddy Long Legs (a huge favorite and another lightly funny one for summer) and The Screwtape Letters. How could I forget those?]
P.S. Our local library didn’t have 84, Charing Cross Road. I had to get it through interlibrary loan at a shipping cost of $3 (oh, the humanity!). It came from Meredith College in North Carolina and the last date on the checkout slip was 2001. I sincerely hope that’s when they switched to electronic records, not the last year someone in the college pulled it off the shelf for a read. Poor neglected little good book.