Monday, October 4, 2010
Gentlemen, Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature...
Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says that you specialize in out-of-print books. The phrase “antiquarian bookseller” scares me somewhat as I equate ‘antique’ with expensive. I am a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books and all the things I want are impossible to get over here except in very expensive rare editions... I enclose a list of my most pressing problems. If you have clean secondhand copies of any of the books on the list for no more than $5 each, will you consider this a purchase order and send them to me?
Very truly yours,
Helene Hanff’s taste in literature was formed by reading Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s lectures on English literature (a journey she describes in Q’s legacy). She had grown up in Philadelphia & moved to New York to be a playwright. She wrote plays, TV scripts & also worked as a script reader as well. She lived frugally in a one-bedroom apartment but her one luxury was books. She wanted to read essays by Robert Louis Stevenson, Leigh Hunt & Walter Savage Landor. She wanted to read John Donne’s Complete Sermons & George Bernard Shaw’s letters to Ellen Terry. She didn’t want to read fiction because, “ I never can get interested in things that didn’t happen to people who never lived.” Helene is a sassy New Yorker, not shy in venting her wrath from 20,000 miles away,
All I have to say to YOU, Frank Doel, is we live in depraved, destructive and degenerate times when a bookshop = a BOOKSHOP – starts tearing up beautiful old books to use as wrapping paper... You tore that book up in the middle of a major battle & I don’t even know which war it was.
Then there was the incident of the Pepys’ Diary,
WHAT KIND OF A PEPYS’ DIARY DO YOU CALL THIS?
This is not pepys’ diary, this is some busybody editor’s miserable collection of EXCERPTS from pepys’ diary may he rot. I could just spit. Where is jan.12 1668, where his wife chased him out of bed and round the bedroom with a red-hot poker? ... i will make do with this thing till you find me a real Pepys. THEN i will rip up this ersatz book, page by page, AND WRAP THINGS IN IT.
Frank is more reserved at first, but finally decides to drop the formality of Miss Hanff after three years of correspondence & she also received letters from the other staff at the bookshop & from Frank’s wife, Nora.
Helene’s enthusiasm & love for English literature is what makes this book so special. Her voice is so distinctive & her passion for books is so strong that book lovers everywhere can identify with her love of learning & her desire to read the great writers. Anglophiles everywhere love this book & I’m happy to be one of them.