In October 1949, Helene Hanff was “a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books”. Living in a squalid New York brownstone and editing scripts for the earliest television drams, Hanff was in her thirties and had never been to university. She had a single “vice”: beautiful books. Impoverished and dependent on library supplies, Hanff began writing to the London bookstore Marks & Co. (now closed), asking its chief buyer, Frank Doel, for cheap, clean editions of some of her favourites. These early requests sparked a twenty-year epistolary friendship celebrated in Hanff’s book 84 Charing Cross Road (1970). The work was subsequently made into a film staring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins. It was only after the book’s initial success that Hanff would finally set foot in London, several years after the death of her bibliophilic friend Doel, only to find the bookshop that had exerted such an influence on her life and career closed. She later wrote about this literary pilgrimage in the sequel The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (1973).
Hanff’s story is nourishing for a number of reasons. Firstly, it celebrates the virtue of reading, rather than merely shopping for books, habits that many people frequently confuse. For years Hanff was dependent on New York’s public libraries, preferring to browse there rather than in bookstores, and only eventually agreeing to purchase her favourite works, many of which she claimed to have read dozens of times. As she was fond of pointing out, she was not interested in bookshops, she was interested in what was written in the books.
Hanff was also something of an autodidact, a habit she claimed to have developed after discovering the writings of the Cambridge scholar Sit Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863-1944). Quiller-Couch was a celebrated novelist and literary critic, but it was his On The Art of Writing lectures (1914-5) that captivated Hanff and many like her. Quiller-Couch came from an eminent and erudite Cornish family, and had also received a classical education at Trinity College, Oxford. It was his work that prompted Hanff to learn Latin and Greek as an independent scholar, and develop a phenomenally thorough knowledge of English literature. Hanff’s efforts were never a conscious attempt to become something of an intellectual, rather it was the consequence of following one reference after another, and borrowing one book after another, in an attempt to comprehend what she had read and fill gaps she perceived in her own knowledge. It was a devotion to infinite curiosity and lifelong learning. Hanff was not one to just skip over the bits she didn’t understand. Lastly, Hanff reminds us of the significance of passion and opportunity. For her, international travel and literary success were eventually prompted by luck, talent, and a love of reading and libraries.
© 晉博教育中心 Brighten Youth Education Centre