Good Book Hunting
At age 16, I underwent the onomastic equivalent of a nose job: I legally changed my name. I had always hated “Lois,” a matronly moniker redolent of great aunts and baggy support hose. With the exception of Brenda Starr, it … Read More
At age 16, I underwent the onomastic equivalent of a nose job: I legally changed my name. I had always hated “Lois,” a matronly moniker redolent of great aunts and baggy support hose. With the exception of Brenda Starr, it was also the worst possible name for a girl thinking of becoming a journalist. Wanting an androgynous byline I chose “Leigh,” a variant spelling of my initials (L.E.E.) But Leigh was also a hat-tip to Leigh Hunt, the 19th century essayist, poet, convicted seditionist, and purported inspiration for the insidious Harold Skimpole of Bleak House. I liked Hunt for, among other things, his meditation on the authorial use of pronouns and the cynical essay “Rules for Newspaper Editors.” His verse is endearingly bad in the manner of Longfellow’s: “Abu Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)/Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace.” It requires a brillo pad to scrub that out of your brain. I owe my relationship with Hunt—not to mention my relationships with Lawrence Sterne, Samuel Pepys and other writers not on academia’s A-list—to Helene Hanff. An impoverished New York television writer with esoteric intellectual appetites, Hanff in 1949 began corresponding with the staff of a small London bookshop called Marks & Co. Over 20 years, their trans-Atlantic colloquy ranged over matters literary (the inadequacies of Richard Burton’s translation of Catallus), practical (instructions for the preparation of Yorkshire pudding) and personal (marriage, death, dental work). In 1973, Hanff published the letters in a book called 84, Charing Cross Road. The book, a quest narrative in which a Jewish Galahad with catholic tastes zealously pursues obscure and out-of-print grails, influenced my life in several ways. As noted, Hanff indirectly suggested my name. More profoundly, she showed me the difference between merely reading, and living a reading life. Before 84, Charing Cross Road I had consumed books the way most children do: browsing the shelves for intriguing titles or following the advice of friends and teachers. My school and local libraries were well stocked, and we lived near a large Brentano’s. Good books found me. It was their destiny. Hanff knew better. Reviewers and fans of 84, Charing Cross Road invariably treat it as a love story: seven centuries of English literature stand in for the hunk. In 1987 the book was made into a movie, one of those BBC-yawners in which Anthony Hopkins is nominally roused from asexual torpor by a spunky, literate woman not impossibly more glamorous than most members of the audience. But while the Marks & Co. contingent has its charms, 84, Charing Cross Road is chiefly a character study of the author. Hanff emerges as loudly opinionated, personal boundary-less, acerbic, generous, funny. Reading the book at the emotionally inchoate age of 13, I imagined she was lonely. I wanted to know her. And budding egotist that I was, I wanted her to know me and to be enriched by our friendship. 84, Charing Cross Road is not about love but about longing: Hanff’s longing for the authors who gave her sustenance. “I am a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books and all the things I want are impossible to get over here….” she introduces herself in a letter dated October 1949. “I enclose a list of my most pressing problems.” And for Hanff these books—or rather the lack of them—were truly pressing problems, more so than such nuisances as intermittent joblessness and eviction. Reading 84, Charing Cross Road for the first time, I compared Hanff’s tenacity to my own passivity. And I was shamed. Determined to stalk more exotic prey, I copied into a notebook every author and title mentioned in the letters and went in search. My parents’ bookshelves yielded Tristram Shandy and The Compleat Angler which I read, loving the Sterne, sort of liking the Walton. I also looked up used bookstores in my neighborhood and consulted the classifieds in my parents’ magazines for stores in other cities. I started writing letters. Over the years I would hunt down more than a hundred titles, most of them gleaned from other authors. The more obscure the book and delayed the gratification the better. My nonpareil of elusion was Death’s Jest Book by Thomas Lovell Beddoes, a 19th century re-imagining of Renaissance revenge tragedies that was still on the list when I finally junked the notebook—by then a thing of threads and patches–in the late ’80s.
I eventually tracked down every one of the two-dozen or so volumes mentioned by Hanff, many of which bored me. That’s not surprising. She and I lack an obvious “People who bought this also bought” bond. Irreconcilably, Hanff disliked fiction (Jane Austen excepted) while I like fiction almost exclusively. Still, in memoirs and the amorphous belles lettres category I found her taste unerring. And even when the quarry proved disappointing, I never regretted the hunt. Today, of course, the Internet has made such hunts obsolete. Searches are conducted in minutes not in years; the only constraints on immediate procurement are financial. Sure I appreciate the convenience. But always to own is never to yearn. It’s been years since I felt my heart skip upon discovering some rare-to-the-point-of-seeming-mythical volume among the miscellany of a second-hand bookstore, or packed in a crate of cellophane wrapped best-sellers at a library book sale (where I memorably brought to ground James Stephens’ Crock of Gold and Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels). There are 17 copies of Death’s Jest Book available new and used on Amazon starting at $14.22. I bought one a few weeks ago. It’s a good book but, alas, no longer an end in itself.