“you leave me sitting here writing long margin notes in library books that don’t belong to me, some day they’ll find out i did it and take my library card away.”
During my letter writing month, Claire kept suggesting I read 84, Charing Cross Road. I don’t usually enjoy books written in letter form, but in this case, it’s a true story of a woman writing letters to a bookshop (and its many characters, mainly Frank Doel). I think I can get on the bus for a book of letters that is really about books, which inevitably makes it a book about books. Perks of Being a Wallflower kind of failed that test. I never even got through The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (sigh).
I felt so much like myself reading these letters, as if it had suddenly appeared in the library stacks and eeked out of its glossy plastic cover and asked me to dance.
While most of the times I find small bits of camaraderie with characters in the folds of the pages I read, in this book I felt utter completeness with Helene, as if I was her only in a new life where I could skype my way into British bookstores and buy the Doel’s nylons at the grocery.
Helene is a character you love from the first page – she’s both pushy, and darling. I particularly loved when she typed in all caps to show her hurried excitement, or sarcasm. In every way, I felt like this could be a woman who shared a piece of soul with me as if a soul can be broken and misplaced, or borrowed.
Earlier today, Swamplandia left a small post-it note on its cover for me, and I imagine Claire’s push for me to read this book was much like this post-it note. It’s as if she knew I would perfectly relate.
84, Charing Cross Road is a book you read aloud. Depending on your mood, and your attitude, you will read it aloud in a British accent. (You may even drink tea, pinky up). I was lucky enough to read most of it in the closed off space of a car (pity I wasn’t going through a car wash at the time, I do so love to read, and dance during the car wash. See, the accent is already taking over my typing). Either way, I am always moving my lips while I read. I hardly move my teeth at all, but even as I type this I am making out the words with my lips. It’s slight, mostly upper lip, and it usually keeps interrupters away because they know you’re clearly busy having a conversation with a paperback. That soft hiss of spit at the corner of your mouth when you’re moving your lips so fast because you can’t wait to read what happens next, that’s when you know, you’ve successfully scared them all away.
Reading the correspondence between Helen Hanff and the bookish few of 84, Charing Cross Road was like reading into a past life. I like to believe bookish people automatically have old souls. Bookish people have been through so much in their four-thousand past lives that they can really appreciate the quiet of words, the soft sweep of turned pages, the pencil smudges in the margins. It’s the little things I suppose. A small history can be drudged up from just a highlighted page, or a note reading, “here, happy,” or “gender notions.” I like to think bookish people are also passive aggressive which leads to a lot of angry notes shoved under bedroom doors. (I think my mother can attest to my being this way, especially from ages 13 to 16).
I don’t know anyone with a love of books who shouldn’t read 84, Charing Cross Road. Helene’s love of books is undeniable and she writes Mark & Co. staff during a time when everything is unreasonable. There are rations on all kinds of foods in England, especially eggs and meats. Imagine a life without cake, and yet, the bright spot in every person’s life is this bookstore that lives through food droughts, wars, deaths, and in the end, closes before Hanff can ever get into its doors to smell the dust, and myrrh of antiquarian books. (We had to get Biblical in order to really understand that smell).
There’s so many things to love in just 97 pages. Side note: I love books that end on an odd number, solely because I think it takes someone unafraid of superstation to pull this off.
After recently reading Jillian’s blog at A Room of One’s Own I’ve been thinking about my own mark on things here in the book blogger stratosphere. She discusses her stance as a book blogger and her stance on recommendations about books. She holds to the statement that she would rather not be considered some sort of “elite reader” that people follow. I have to be honest and tell you that I follow Jillian because I can’t really stand many of the Classics and she seems to inspire (in me) a reason to search through their coy pages.
Anywho, while reading 84, I was touched by how much Helene’s love of books really inspires the reader to form bonds with characters. I was ready to jump into John Donne and visit the cobblestones of Oxford. (I’m not even sure there are cobblestones, I’m just fantasizing). I think without even meaning to Helene has inspired a large group of people to read again.
And this is my question: isn’t that what we’re all doing here? Obviously, part of my blog is to impart my own unique tastes, and statements onto the world, but it’s also to convince people to plunge into books rather than facebook, or Law & Order. I write this blog because I want to inspire people to scribble their secrets into that small half-inch of space between paragraph and page end. When Helene discusses this quote:
“I wish you hadn’t been so over-courteous about putting the inscription on a card instead of on the flyleaf. It’s the bookseller coming out in you all, you were afraid you’d decrease its value. You would have increased it for the present owner. (And possibly for the future owner. I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages some one long gone has called my attention to.)”
I find myself pencilling into my diary the page number, and wanting to go home and permanent marker my name into the top of every book on my shelf. It is so like me to hoard books, but maybe I need to caress them, pencil them, and send them off into the world again. When I come to a book with a page turned over I find myself wondering if the page was turned in haste; if their bus stop came up abruptly because they were so completely lost in the fantasy, or if later they planned on copying the sentence into their journals. I copy sentences into a journal so that I never really mark up a book, but why is that? Why don’t I share with the world where I found my most intimate moments with these characters, my most intimate moments with myself.
This is a bit of a jumbled mess, but I think as a book blogger I do dedicate myself to books and in that way I dedicate myself to words, and readers, and sharing, and margin notes, and dog-earred triangle flaps, and the statements I put out there about the books I read. In a way I always feel personally indebted to these books that I just want to hold in my fists and breathe in like a child’s soft head. I’m not sure how I can remove myself from my opinions and the opinions I sometimes force on this blog. As a reader of my blog you have to realize that the push of my opinions is from the physical thaw I feel after reading a story that literally changes me in some way. I either miss myself, or push myself, or feel myself again after a long withdrawal.
On this blog I share books that make me remember myself, and make me expect difference, or expect change. 84 Charing Cross Road is easily one of these books. If nothing else it inspired me to write more letters, and read more books. Isn’t that the only thing we can ask from books and from book bloggers, that they inspire the sense of reading, that they inspire us to live in two worlds; one of reality and one of fiction. Countless people have said that writers are good liars, but what’s to say that readers aren’t, we are always living double lives.
This blog is very much – a girl on the page, and a girl walking about the world.