Monday, December 12, 2011

`Whoever Owned It Before Me'

On Saturday I watched the 1987 movie version of 84, Charing Cross Road and then stayed up too late reading the book by Helene Hanff (1970) on which it's based – a multi-media first for this reader. The film, nicely acted by Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, is modest and quietly moving, and Bancroft’s wordless scene near the end, in which her character reflects on what she has lost and what she might have had, wrung a few tears out of this jaded admirer of the Terminator films.

The movie seldom strays far from the letters exchanged by Hanff, a New York City writer and lover of antiquarian books, and Frank Doel, the chief buyer for a book dealer in London, between 1949 and 1968. The two never meet, and the film more than the book hints at a nascent stirring of epistolary romance. The scene in which Doel sits in his office reading a love poem by Yeats, though quite lovely, has no counterpart in the book.

Could a comparable friendship happen today? “Love is multiform,” John Berryman writes in “Canto Amor,” but could it endure in an age of online book dealers and PayPal? The technology of book acquisition has changed more since 1987, when the movie appeared, than it had in the preceding four decades. Hanff mails cash to London, where a bookkeeper enters her account balance by hand in a ledger like Bob Cratchit – or Charles Lamb at the British East India Company.

In her first letter to Marks & Co., Booksellers, written Oct. 5, 1949, Hanff requests essays by Hazlitt, Stevenson and Leigh Hunt, and a Latin Bible. Today, I could have them all by midweek and never touch a human being, even digitally. I’m not succumbing here to nostalgia. We’ve lost something, yes, but gained much. Most of us in Hanff’s place seek books, not a friend, and I don’t necessarily want to meet the person who fetches a volume for me off a shelf in the warehouse. But I might.
Interestingly, the book and movie offer little evidence that Frank Doel is anything more than a desultory reader. He’s a knowledgeable, conscientious tradesman. The only thing we see him read, other than letters and invoices, is the Yeats poem. Unlike Hanff, he never romanticizes books and reading. In the fourth of her letters reproduced in the book, Hanff writes:

“I do love secondhand books that open to the page some previous owner read oftenest. The day Hazlitt came he opened to `I hate to read new books,’ and I hollered `Comrade!’ to whoever owned it before me.”


William A. Sigler said...

"wrung a few tears out of this jaded admirer of the Terminator films."

I can't say I saw that one coming.

Shelley said...

Being a "conscientious tradesman" can be a romance of its own.