My next column for The Sunday Guardian.
The World Book Fair that just passed was a place for friendship: heads bent together over books, favourite quotes shyly exchanged over coffee, text messages couched in allusion, flirtations with folios, tweets more lettered than usual (within the 140-character limit, of course). Somehow, books – actual books, the sort that can be held or leafed through, shoved into a backpack, hidden under your shirt, signed by an author, kissed by a lover, stacked up on a wall or a shelf or under a table and behind a cat – turn things into prettier versions of themselves. Far away from literary festivals, where books feel abstract, where the idea reigns (as it sometimes should), the more physical book trade shows itself at book fairs as an inclusive creature, a delicate thing of quiet grace.
I think, always, of 84 Charing Cross Road when I find myself slipping into a bookish friendship. An unlikely bestseller that chronicled the true correspondence between a bookstore manager in London and a bibliophile in New York, it was the first book that made me long earnestly for literary companionship, a few moments of shared joy. When the bookstore manager, Frank Doel, gifts the book-lover, Helene Hannf, a book, she writes to him: “I wish you hadn't been so over-courteous about putting the inscription on a card instead of on the flyleaf. It's the bookseller coming out in you all, you were afraid you’d decrease its value. You would have increased it for the present owner. (And possibly for the future owner. I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages someone long gone has called my attention to.)” Through the course of a 20-year correspondence, they never meet. But it is a bit like they have written themselves into each other’s lives.
When Doel dies in 1969, Hannf finally visits the bookstore and strikes up a friendship with Doel’s widow; through it all, though, the epistolary ghost of her relationship with Frank looms elegantly – in the bookstores she visits, the books that she reads, in fact, in everything else that she writes.
Later, in The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, Hannf’s travelogue of that visit, she writes: “My problem is that while other people are reading fifty books I'm reading one book fifty times. I only stop when at the bottom of page 20, say, I realise I can recite pages 21 and 22 from memory. Then I put the book away for a few years.” It’s the sort of thing, one can’t help thinking, that she would have said to Frank.
Helene Hannf and Frank Doel wrote to each other of the books they loved, only to find their lives written tenderly into those books, just as the books wrote themselves into their letters, and their letters relived their very lives; so furtively tied together were these three things that every string pulled out would rip another.
Back then, to friendship; it seemed to me that the book fair was the sort of place where we could have found Doels for our Hannfs, where we could link arms with one another, stare earnestly at the wares that surrounded us, and sigh, quietly, fervently, together, because, really, we were thinking the same thing: how will we find the time to read all of this, and will we ever love anything quite as much as this? We were comrades in arms in these moments, lovers across a dance floor in others. We weren’t Eliot and Pound or Wordsworth and Coleridge, locked in poetry, driven into prose, fated to live in each other’s masterpieces. No, we were like the margins, tucked quietly into shelf space for accidental discovery. We read so much about friendships between writers that we forget the smaller ones that lurk copiously under them: the friendships between readers. If it weren’t for the latter, who would read the former?
We are friends of another sort, friends who will peer cautiously from behind the edges, a tentative paw held out earnestly, a smile so frightened it is almost a prelude to the smile that might follow. And who wouldn’t take a chance on a prelude that might turn softly on its heel to show that underneath it all it’s an overture?