84, Charing Cross Road
Why this book?
A memoir in letters about a solitary writer in mid-century New York corresponding with the proprietor and staff of a used book shop in London, from whom she orders inexpensive but attractive copies of mostly classics over a period of decades. Even more, it’s a memoir of relationships that develop as a consequence (all through letters; the principals never meet in person). There are so many reasons I love it. For one thing, Helene Hanff collects, rather than accrues. She’s not in it for the First Editions (which doesn’t mean she can’t appreciate decent paper or proper weight or used book smell); she’s in love with the words, and the way they seem to make her feel more like a fellow human being than her interactions with actual people do. There is the natural infusion, over a period of years, of not just incidental details of lives being lived but the personalities of the correspondents. But it’s the language, and the vessels that contain it, that ferry Hanff back and forth between the private world she treasures and the baffling, teeming, everyday one. The most precise and painful evocation of the very real joys of a certain kind of loneliness that I’ve ever encountered.