Books, Soul Mates and Faraway Nostalgia-Reflections on 84, Charing Cross Road

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The book got quite popular when its Chinese translation was first published in 2005. (Another version was launched three years earlier in Taiwan in Traditional Chinese characters.) As usual, I was hardly a trend-catcher and thought of this book only recently as a potential companion to my graduation trip. Sarcastically, I was already on my way when my electronic version was printed out. It finally reached my hand on my first night back, during which twenty years of sincere relationship slipped through the passages within several hours as if a brief instant. In the end, I found some good justification for my stubborn indifference, if not objection, to media buzz: good story transcends time and space. Whenever you come to it, there it awaits. (In that sense, my feeling matches exactly with what Anne Bancroft described in the Introduction: [Books provide] a way of reaching out across time and space to friends and strangers, and to the absent presences that play such a large part in all our lives.)

I like every correspondence compiled in the book. As correspondence, they are quite short which seldom exceed one page. Nevertheless, they still manage to impose such a fresh vividness that reveals the personality of the characters out of the lines. Their vibrant informativeness even went beyond to detail a microscopic picture of how average British families were influenced by the free-fall of Britain Empire’s once all-mighty suns, how they went through it with stringent day-to-day planning and how they were finally welcomed with a gradual recovery. But to me, the most touching part still lies with the characters. From those tiny little things like Nora’s happy family pictures, Cecily’s secret recipe of Yorkshire Pudding and Mrs. Boulton’s tenderly embroidered Irish linen flowed out a warm glow of “all the best things life can share with us.” It is indeed incredible to see how this glow flowed from one through another who were merely strangers before their roads crossed. So incredible that when such blessings occurred, all we can do is to thank God.

Helene and Frank were of course the most impressive of all. Helene, or Miss Hanff, was absolutely like a lonely proud rose. Her “thorns” prodded herself to masterfully swing between acrid humor and genuine gratitude. In exchange for the amazing antiquarian books of neat papers, startling bindings and rare editions (for a more-than-reasonable price according to especially criterion of our times), she offered generously not only due dollars but also her considerateness and kindness. The Christmas parcels of meat, eggs and the cute “tins of tongues” were just like the petals she spread across the ocean, from which she was rewarded more than the scent of her rosy generosity. Frank, then, was perhaps everything opposite to what defined Helene. He was so polite that was sometimes too reserved (that was why three years since the correspondence started, the letters were still addressed to “Miss Hanff”). Even the humor was well-restrained in humble witty (“I shall be only too pleased to root for the Brooklyn Dodgers if you will reciprocate with a few cheers for THE SPURS…”)

Yet there was one great commonality between the two that makes the entire story possible: a tender love for books bloomed in different fashions. For Helene, it cultivated a peculiar taste for antiquarian collections, making her burn for every excellent book she came across. Equally would she get mad at bad ones sabotaged by “huge monsters in academic robes carrying long bloody butcher knives labeled Excerpt, Selection, Passage and Abridged.” For Frank, searching for satisfying old copies was not only a job for which he earned his bread, but a lifelong calling filled with enthusiasm and magical capabilities. He was after all a step away from being a magician that he cannot find every book she wanted. But so hard was he trying that the demanding Miss Hanff finally came to admit what she had been wanting to say: “you’re the only soul alive who understands me.”

But the confession did not wait too long to see itself becoming invalid: the book ends with the same sad news told by three people. As the journey finally boarded off at the bottom cover (which was literally the “last” page that I printed out), I found the story categorized as a “love story” by one criticism from Wall Street Journal. I cannot help but feel sorry of the comment- While the story was around a classical or pre-modern affection towards books, it cannot evade the fate of being promoted as a love affair to arouse more media exposure. For me, in the beginning, I did not see it as a love story at all. On one hand, the web 1.0 idea of “net love” sounded too avant-garde for those whose only connection was mails with an interval ranging from five days to one year. They never knew how each other’s voice was like, let alone seeing each other in person. On the other hand, Frank was married and had a happy family as can be proved by letters from his wife, daughter and himself as well. What space was there to nurture the seed of love?

For a while, I was curious if Helene resumed her purchase from Marks & Co. I learnt later that in the movie adapted therefrom, she finally made her long-overdue trip to London, tried to tribute to the very bookshop that brought the words and memories that were cherished so much, only to find it failed to protect itself against the tide of modern time. Then I guess it has become vain to speculate the answer: even if the correspondence did linger a while longer as a kind of reminisce, equally will be true that the harder Helene tried, the more difficult that desired purpose could be achieved. After all, it was Frank that had instilled life into otherwise too mediocre a dealer-consumer exchange. While the memory about Frank certainly passes on, the story was forever halted once the irreplaceable one was gone.

There was one and only Frank for Helene. That’s why the story cannot go on without Frank ever coming back from that forever void of the past. Similarly (though perhaps less evident), Helene was also one and only for Frank. That’s what has made the memory of the story, which was later recounted into the book, so savvy, intriguing, passionate and above all, unique. If the common-sense love does not apply to them as the expression appeared with less intensity and desire, then “soul mate” is certainly a better description of what they are to each other.

By labeling it “unique,” I am not only suggesting a sense of blessing, but also a mourn over a beautiful past that we today barely experience and, I am afraid, would never get the chance to experience as the society is driving high along the one-dimensional doom for quality literature. Love stories remain an eternal theme, whether or not it involves an overlap with the elements of being soul mates. However, just as the paragraphs that Helene found herself identified with were antiquary, the unique story she was presenting here was also inevitably antiquary in nature. To understand this, one can easily switch “84, Charing Crossroad” or “14 East 95th Street” into f.doel@marksnco.co.uk or hhanff@gmail.com. It brings more efficiency, you bet. What lasts for two decades would be effortlessly condensed by at least a half. Yet by doing so, by replacing the classic way of communication- or even lifestyle- with a modern one flooded (or rather overwhelmingly conquered) by mass production, mass media, internet and e-books (like what I am gradually used to), are we not also killing all the romance that used to revolve around? Less surprise, less anticipation. More expectation, more impatience. More control over mind, less indulgence with heart. Helene’s peculiar taste would suffer an accelerating rate of depreciation, and a lower chance of flourishing to begin with. The saddest part is that heartbreaking as it sounds, scarcely anyone would pay due attention- let alone respectful acknowledgement- to the not-slowly-but-surely dying of such soul-mate romance tied by books. Modern way of utilizing books (yes, utilizing in a utilitarian sense) has totally changed. So is what should be understood as quintessential elements of the soul. In a world characterized by a variety of materialism that is increasingly tempted to disregard everything non-materialistic, does soul matter if at all? While this picture may not necessarily suffocate many other ways to find oneself a soul mate, finding him/her through the knot tied by an enduring and flaming penchant for books nourished by trust, sincerity and gratitude seems to be more and more a nostalgia from yesterday.

Thinking like this indeed makes me melancholically nostalgic, until I came across the lines that I will enclose below to end this essay. It was excerpted from John Donne, one of Helene’s favorite authors, but somehow failed to make its appearance in the book, and was later creatively included into the movie. For reframing the bottle-half-empty pessimism as has been indicated above into bottle-half-filled optimism, I am deeply grateful to the movie and earnestly looking forward to watching it.

“All mankind is of one author, and one volume,

When one man dies,

One chapter is not torn out of the book,

But translated into a better language.

And every chapter must be so translated.

God employs several translators,

Some pieces are translated by age,

Some by sickness,

Some by war,

Some by justice,

But God’s hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library,

Where every book shall lie open to one another.”

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12 responses »

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