Posted in Book Lovers Community

84 Charing Cross Road

84

Marks & Co.
84, charing Cross Rd.
London, W. C. 2
England

Gentlemen:

Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says that you specialize in out-of-print books. The phrase “antiquarian booksellers” 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 very expensive rare editions, or in Barnes and Noble grimy, marked-up schoolboy copies.

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 $5.00 each, will you consider this a purchase order and send them to me?

Very truly yours,

Hélène Hanff
(Miss) Hélène Hanff

What an introduction to a story! From the first lines of this slender spine, we have a sense that this is going to be a healthy mix of intrigue, love, and quirkiness. As a bibliophile myself, I can appreciate Helene’s predicament. Her desire for worthy copies at Everyman prices is familiar to most lovers of books. Generic and impersonal “Barnes and Noble grimy, marked-up schoolboy copies” connotes a disrespect for the soul of a beloved story and a lack of relationship with the reader. Collectors of stories know that it is hard to not form an attachment to the books we love, and so, therefore, we want a spine that is worthy of our love.

As a child, my mom introduced me to a delightful old movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Ann Bancroft about a brassy, sassy, and delightfully funny paradox of a woman and her true story friendship with a buttoned-up, prim, and proper London bookshop. Helene is a New York woman author in 1949, who is looking for specific books which are nearly impossible to come by in American bookshops. Her above letter opens up a transatlantic correspondence that spans twenty years (and beyond). In her brassy and sassy way, she endears herself to Frank Doel and the rest of the shop clerks and secretaries at Marks and Co., 84 Charing Cross Road, London, England.

I loved the movie. I loved the epistolary relationship. I loved the way they all grew to care for each other. I loved the respect for good and great books that was celebrated throughout. I loved the spunk and humor and character. I loved all of it even more when I realized that it was a movie based on a book and a true story. This was an example of a movie remaining perfectly faithful to the book. The movie came about only after multiple stage adaptations – all overseen by Helene and scrupulously careful production experts.

bancroft

In this charming story, Helene’s big personality is perfectly balanced by her generosity and affection. The staff at 84 Charing Cross Road appreciated her sincere love of excellent books, self education, lifelong learning, and good taste. Helene appreciated their care for her orders, their reasonable prices, and their work in preserving good books. It was a romance of ideas, and a love affair of books.

In the early 1950s, war was over but rations were still on. Helene had a British friend in her apartment building from whom she learned how poorly the Londoners were eating. Appalled, she found a whole series of excuses to send them food packages with real eggs, real meat and other things that that were so scare. It is impossible not to cry when you read the letters that the bookshop sent to her in thanks:

“Now then. Brian told me you are all rationed to 2 ounces of meat per family per week and one egg per person per month and I am simply appalled. He has a catalogue from a British firm here which flies food from Denmark to his mother, so I am sending a small Christmas present to Marks & Co.” – Helene, December 8, 1949

“I should just like to add that everything in the parcel was something that we either never see or can only be had through the black market. It was extremely kind and generous of you to think of us in this way and we are all extremely grateful.” – Frank Doel, 20th December, 1949

“Where is Leigh Hunt? Where is Oxford Verse? Where is the Vulgate and dear goofy John Henry, I thought that they’d be such nice uplifting reading for Lent and NOTHING do you send me. 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. I have made arrangements with the Easter bunny to bring you an Egg, he will get there and find that you have died of Inertia.” – Helene, March 25, 1950

“I have to thank you for the very welcome Easter parcel which arrived safely yesterday… I am sorry we haven’t been able to send you any of the books you want…” – Frank Doel 7th April, 1950

“We were all quite dazzled to see the meat. And the eggs and tins were so very welcome.” – Megan Wells, 5 April 1951

This across the sea and back again banter and friendship just grew and grew, leaving the reader with a very acute sense of loss when the little volume ends. Easily read in a lazy afternoon, it is the perfect length. Digested in one or two sittings and short enough to return to again and again.

best-84-charing-cross-road-1986-630-75

When our book club read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, I was reminded of this powerful little true story and reached for it again after having forgotten it for many years. Since then I have read it three times and watched the movie once. Perfect for a rainy day, transition between harder and heavier books, or a long car ride, I will always feel like Helene and Frank are old friends who remind me that it is ok to love beautiful old books, be fussy about translation, and miss the quaint old bookshops (like Shop Around the Corner) that have been replaced by the impersonal and useless mega stores (like Fox Books).

Funny, charming, smart, endearing, and an ode to the preservation of Old Western Culture, 84 Charing Cross Road makes me a better reader, a better lover of books, and deepens my romantic sensibilities about book culture. Some time, soon, I hope, I will read my way through Helene’s book orders. I want to read her John Henry Newman, John Donne, Oxford Verse, Pepys’s Diaries, etc. I want to get the “Professor Q” education.

kevs presents 001

 

Posted in Book Lovers Community

Orange Childcraft, 1: Poems of Early Childhood

“Good reading is as essential to the nourishment of a child’s character as good food is necessary for the development of his body.” –  Angelo Patri, Childcraft 1949

The 1949 Orange Childcraft Volume 1: Poems of Early Childhood leads off with a brilliant introduction by Angelo Patri about the essential value quality reading has in a child’s life. If it were permissible to share and credit whole texts, I would just photograph it and leave it here to do my work for me. It is clear from this two-page plea to parents, that this series was crafted with deep respect for children and their learning. It was penned in a time when we could still call good things good, and bad things bad, and practically everyone knew what we meant.

IMG_4906

Friends often ask me which Childcraft series I would buy if I could only buy one. There is no way that I can answer that question. Both are so different from each other and both are absolutely foundational in our family library. If I were absolutely pressed to reduce my collection down to just 12 volumes, I would keep the first 6 of the 1949 orange series, and I would find the best 6 of the modern series (Mathemagic, Magic of Words and How Things Work being non-negotiable inclusions).

The newer series does have Poems, Stories and Fables, etc. For my money, and taste, however, those are add-ons since the 1949 orange series covers them with gorgeous watercolor illustration and classic good taste. I am not saying that I would part with my newer editions, just that they have lesser value to me than the orange base set.

“Make no mistake about it, a child needs the spiritual refuge that books afford.”-  Angelo Patri, Childcraft 1949

Volume One: Poems of Childhood is organized to deepen a child’s love of poetry and help to develop their stamina for the reading of longer and more varied forms. Rich illustration is lavished on every page and draws the child into the heart of the story through the lovely and imaginative pictures.

 

Section One: Mother Goose and Nursery Rhymes

“‘Humpty Dumpty’s rhythmic expression is a bit of an accepted race philosophy. Fragile material things are worsted in a contest with infinite forces. A child would be bewildered, stunned, by such a statement, but he gleefully accepts it, chuckles over the picture it presents, when it is offered in the nursery rhyme. He understands that the egg cannot fall off a wall without coming to grief and, inarticulate though he is, he catches the bit of philosophy that lies behind the symbol.”-  Angelo Patri, Childcraft 1949

IMG_4888

IMG_4889

IMG_4892

Section Two: The World About Us

“The time comes when the child emerges from his world of imagination and symbolism into one nearer actuality. He demands the true story… the child is now eager for biography, history, and science told in story. The form shifts but the content must still hold the halo and glamour of romance, the poetical quality of a dream, while it offers the sterner stuff of soul structure: duty and honor and truth.”-  Angelo Patri, Childcraft 1949

 

IMG_4895
IMG_4897

IMG_4898

Section Three: Fun and Fancy

“Fairies and witches and elves live in the child’s world because he needs them. Rhythmic language, lovely poetry, tales worn smooth in their passage down the years are his own forms of expression, happily understood and readily assimilated in speech and action. The vital spark of truth they contain, the sure touch of beauty that is upon them, justify the child in his love for them.”-  Angelo Patri, Childcraft 1949

 

IMG_4902

IMG_4900

“You can give a child very little that he can keep as his own. You can give him a good book. There is no finer gift within your power.”-  Angelo Patri, Childcraft 1949

IMG_4893

Posted in Book Lovers Community

Once On A Time, A. A. Milne

milne

Many years ago, I first heard the famous quote by CS Lewis that “a children’s story which is only enjoyed by children is a bad children’s story.” That observation has served as a good reminder to me that books I cannot enjoy are probably not good books for my children overall.

Looking for audio books for my children, I tripped over A.A. Milne’s delightfully funny little story, Once On A Time. In the preface, Milne echoes Lewis:  

“I am very sure of this: that no one can write a book which children will like, unless he writes it for himself first.”

This quote captures not only something very true but also a revelation of who he was writing this one for.

Like almost everyone of our time, I grew up enchanted by Winnie the Pooh. My earliest memories of Pooh are, thankfully, of the Ernest H. Shephard illustration. However, I have a soft spot for the Disney repackaging as well. Imagine my delight when I read this in the preface to Once On A Time:

“This book was written in 1915, for the amusement of my wife and myself at a time when life was not very amusing; it was published at the end of 1917; was reviewed, if at all, as one of a parcel, by some brisk uncle from the Tiny Tots Department; and died quietly, without seriously detracting from the interest which was being taken in the World War, then in progress.” -Milne, A. A.

220px-OnceOnATime

Milne treats us to his lovely dry humor in the preface and really prepares us for the treat that this little fairy tale will prove to be. It is most certainly not Winnie The Pooh. It might be compared to George MacDonald’s The Light Princess in tone, but even that is a stretch. It really is a totally different side to the creator of Christopher Robin and his Pooh. Darker, more complicated and much more interesting. In fact, Milne hints at how he would like us to read him in the preface when he asks if Alice in Wonderland or The Wind in the Willows are children’s books. Once On A Time is *that* kind of book. A complex story with hidden subplot that would amuse and entertain children while also tickling the curiosity and imagination of grown-ups.

Lest we see Once On A Time as straight allegory or a clever satire, Milne warns against that assumption: “it is not that sort of book.”

“But, as you see, I am still finding it difficult to explain just what sort of book it is. Perhaps no explanation is necessary. Read in it what you like; read it to whomever you like; be of what age you like; it can only fall into one of two classes. Either you will enjoy it, or you won’t.”

Just as the title suggests, this is a fairy tale. Something almost akin to The Princess Bride or Ella Enchanted, this is one of those fairy tales where everything is just a little too neatly organized for it not to be funny. Milne wastes no opportunity to poke fun at stereotypes and turn things sort of on their heads. Just when we are finally satisfied that the prince and princess are going to take care of the menacing countess, the princess ruminates on how little she likes the prince’s involvement and the prince takes a fancy to the very beautiful countess who he knows is, in fact, evil and scheming. In this way, kids may be a bit confused. Adults will know that this is just the classic archetype of the girl who wants what she can’t have, and the boy who wants all that he can get. Thankfully for the younger listeners, everything moves at a very quick pace and so most of the strangeness may go right over their heads.

If I had read this as a children’s story, I would have been very disappointed. It is so contrived and so predictable. If I had read this as satire, I would have been left unsatisfied. Knowing, however, that this is a story that Milne told to his wife at night as a delightful joke, it completely hits the mark. It is fun, does not take itself too seriously, and is very entertaining!

I am recommending this book for moms. And if moms don’t want to read a fairy tale to themselves, I think that this might make a lovely read aloud. The kindle and audible match are lovely – the kindle has sweet illustration and the Audible has a great narrator. There is nothing truly objectionable in it, and so it is safe to share with littles. Whether or not they like it may depend entirely upon how much mom or dad is enjoying it as they read it aloud or how dry a sense of humor the young listeners possess.