Saturday, April 24, 2010

Nerveless in Seattle: Reading 84, Charing Cross Road to Friends

Dear P., my fellow reader for Wednesday's event in celebration of the 40th Anniversary of 84, Charing Cross Road, asked me yesterday if I was "nervous, yet." Truth be told, I'm not. In the first place, as she will be doing all the heavy lifting by reading the much longer letters from Helene Hanff to her friend FPD, while I will only be reading the more usually business-like replies from that bookseller, I frankly have less about which to worry. Secondly, I have complete confidence in the material, specially as it will be read by dear P., to amuse and entertain our presumably already sympathetic audience. This reading is of the kind to which one might confidently invite anyone, but count on only those who know the book to show up. There's nothing unhappy in that. When we read Dorothy Parker together, with others from the bookstore, there were in that audience no doubt at least a few people who knew of Dorothy Parker only a stray quote, or who knew her only by her reputation as a wit, if at all. To show that there was more to her than that was one of the pleasures of the evening for all involved. Reading Blake, or Dickens, on the occasions of their birthdays, to the small but enthusiastic audiences that attended either evening, was an opportunity for me, however inadequately, to let people hear the words of two very different kinds of genius read aloud again, possibly in either case, for the first time. Reading selections from Helene Hanff's 84, Charing Cross Road will, I think, be more like a reunion. If one knows the book at all, even if only from the movie made of it, one either already loves the author, her eccentric reading-lists, the story of her friendship with the booksellers at Marks & Co., and the world, now largely past, memorialized therein, or one could not be made to care about such things to begin with.

Helene Hanff would have laughed at the suggestion that her little epistolary memoir deserved a place on the shelf with Dickens and Blake, or even Miss Parker. Hanff spent her working life hacking away, writing television scripts, juvenile history textbooks, occasional journalism; anything and everything in short that might allow her to earn a living as a writer, but with few illusions about the immortality of her efforts. Even the book that, late in life, made her famous was originally undertaken as nothing more than what she hoped might prove to be a salable piece for a magazine. By the time she tried to shape these letters into something, she'd already written an amusing memoir of her time as an unproduced playwright, in Underfoot in Show Business, and she'd seen that book, really her first, and despite a few positive notices, disappear without much notice from the bookstore shelves. Helen Hanff was, most charmingly, a person of few pretensions and few illusions about her own talent. She knew, pretty accurately, based on decades of experience as a professional writer, just what she could and could not do in prose, and just what she might hope to earn, both in wages and reputation, by doing it as best she could.

The happy surprise of course came when her trusted editor, having convinced her that the piece she'd made of her correspondence with the London booksellers was too long for a magazine and too short for a book, then convinced Hanff to put back all the letters she'd taken out and sell the manuscript as a book, possibly "for the Christmas season." First published by a very small house, Hanff's little book acquired first a cult, and then a major publisher, neither of which the author had anticipated. Eventually, after first a television adaptation, then two sequels and movie, stage and radio adaptations, what had surprised her by becoming a cult, even more surprisingly, became the means by which Helene Hanff finally got to see England, live in comparative comfort for the first time in her life and see her name on a plaque on a wall in the beloved street from which all her beloved books came.

It is as much this unlikely story as the book itself that has made 84, Charing Cross Road such a part of so many bookish lives. To know the story, one must read Hanff's books. To read even just this one, one must already love old books and old bookstores, and thus already be ripe for conversion. The cult, for such it still is, lives on, now more than a decade after the author's death. In offering a reading to mark the 40th Anniversary of the book's initial publication, we may be confident that most, if not all of those in attendance will already be members. Those who aren't, those who come to us only out of curiosity or as a kindness to the participants, will not necessarily be converted by what they hear. Like all true conversions, belief must come from personal experience, and sympathies already engaged in the search for like-minded souls. There is nothing in the letters we will read that will convince anyone not already so disposed to love this book as we do, but for those that do, we will then provide only another occasion to say so, and be among friends.

So how then could I be nervous about this reading? We already know just what, and who to expect.

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