Author provides connections for reader and writer

March 04, 2007|by KATE COLEMAN

I love to read.

I don't care for science fiction, suspense thrillers or stories set in ancient times.

I usually choose to stay pretty close to home. For me, reading - like many other things in my life - is about connections.

I'm not disciplined about keeping a journal, but I do jot thoughts in notebooks and paste in ticket stubs and newspaper clippings. I include passages from books I read - lyrical descriptions, insights into characters, something that makes me laugh or cry - things I recognize in myself.


Helene Hanff is occupying many pages of the current edition of my "commonplace book." (What I do actually has a name.)


My friend Sally recommended Hanff's "84, Charing Cross Road," published in 1970. Our friend Sharon had loaned it to her. Another friend had told Sharon about Hanff, and I have told nearly everyone I've talked to in the past month.

Maybe I'll shut up about her after I finish this column. Probably not.

"84, Charing Cross Road," which later became a 1987 film starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, is the story of Hanff's 20-year correspondence with Frank Doel of Marks & Co., a used-book dealer in London. That story is told through the letters Hanff and Doel exchanged from 1949 to 1969.

In her first communication to the bookshop, Hanff, a native of Philadelphia who lived in and loved New York, described herself as a "poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books." The self-educated Hanff was passionate about English literature, and Marks & Co. was able to find books and essays she couldn't.

Although the relationship began as a business transaction, Hanff's personality was irrepressible, and a strong and long-lasting transatlantic friendship quickly developed. The down-to-earth author is smart, funny and open about her life. She's also warm and kind, sending boxes of hard-to-get-in-postwar-Britain food to the bookshop via Denmark.

Hanff, born in 1916, died in 1997, but you might notice I refer to her in the present tense. She is very much alive to me.

In "The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street," her 1973 account of the trip she finally made to England in 1971, Hanff called "84, Charing Cross Road" "a miracle waiting to happen round the corner in late middle age." She wrote that the book - which drew a response that amazed her - changed her life.

And reading Hanff certainly has brought great joy to mine.

I checked out all the Hanff books Washington County Free Library owns.

"Apple of My Eye" is her 1977 "personal tour" of New York. She loves the city - not with blind passion - but with a knowing affection.

Hanff doesn't write about world events - although her descriptions of the then new World Trade Center's twin towers have a poignant resonance 20 years later. Her work is not Greek tragedy or high drama, but it collects delightful snapshots of daily life.

In 1978, Hanff had an offer to broadcast five minutes of talk once a month for British Broadcasting Corp. radio. The gig lasted for six years, and the collection of radio columns, "Letter From New York," was published in 1992.

Hanff's writings about dogs are among my favorite parts of her work. She describes Duke, her upstairs neighbor's German shepherd, as her "true love." She talks about the birthday party she hosted for Duke on the steps of her apartment building. Several canine friends attended, and Hanff carried the chicken, aglow with candles, across the street from the neighborhood delicatessen.

The bookshelves in my house are overcrowded, but I had to own Hanff. "Good clean" (Doel's term) copies of four of her books have arrived from used book shops. Her 1961 autobiography, "Underfoot in Show Business" arrived Wednesday, but I'm not letting myself read it until I finish my taxes.

Like Hanff, I "like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned."

It's about connections.

Kate Coleman writes a monthly Lifestyle column and covers the Maryland Symphony Orchestra for The Herald-Mail.

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