When we travel, I love to step into the local library. Whether the little library, housed in a house, old and charming and lit for Christmas and viewed from our room at the inn in Vermont, or the Concord Free library in Concord, MA where Alcott and Thoreau, Emerson and Hawthorne all have alcoves of their own. A library holds the spirit of its people to me. I like sitting at its tables, worn with time, or new and exciting and thinking toward the future. So, when we were in Philadelphia, visiting its wonderful art museum and touching our history at Independence Hall, we walked to Logan Square and marveled at the architecture and beauty before us, and we went into the Philadelphia Free Library.
I was thinking about this imposing structure with its pages and pages and pages of words as I read Helene Hanff’s Q’s Legacy. Hanff found “Q” on the shelves of the main library of Philadelphia, which can only be this one, can it not? It was through “Q”‘s lectures that she continued her college education and by which we eventually read of her friendships at 84 Charing Cross Road. It is, in the end, a remarkable example of a very public collegial education, found through a book in a public library, and it kept me enchanted and smiling as I read Hanff’s always witty words.
Q’s Legacy is the prequel, of sorts, to 84 Charing Cross Road. It is Helene Hanff’s story of how she came to educate herself in literature, particularly English literature, after losing her college scholarship during the Great Depression. You see, Helene went to the library and asked for the section of textbooks on English Literature and writing. She worked her way down the alphabet with nothing quite being what she was looking for until she came to the letter q. There, alphabetized under q, were the literature lectures of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, (Q to his students) and there began his legacy - the writing education of Helene Hanff, which lead her to good works and good literature and good writing, all with good humor, that carried her through the lean years and the good as she pursued a writing career.
Can I say it was a delightful read and have you rushing about to get it? Can I tell you it is a fast read and a great friend in hand on a blustery night? Can I tell you it is a hopeful read as we see Helene’s jobs writing for television in New York City, from her tiny couch-sitter apartment, dry up as the industry heads west to California? It is a hopeful read as we watch her struggle to make a living and pay her bills and still enjoy her books and she eventually finds her way, through a small antiquarian bookseller in London and the story that followed, to a success beyond her wildest dreams. It is also a reminder today, as we see the news and magazine industry, floundering and flailing as they strive to grab readers in a publishing world that has moved even further than she, or “Q”, could ever imagine into the realms of the internet; a reminder that although things change, sometimes so quickly we can barely catch our breath, new opportunities will arise.
Q’s Legacy was mentioned to me in a comment left about Hannf’s second book, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, which followed her long-awaited trip to London. I’m on a book buying diet. Like many of you; I’ve cut back, use the library, beg, borrow and, no, I don’t steal, but I did find this copy on Amazon for $1 and postage. A $4 deal that came in good time and in excellent condition (in fact, it appears to have never been read) and here I sit, after the storms, contentedly chatting about a long forgotten “Q” and the power of books and libraries to inspire and inform and cloak all our lives in knowledge and adventure.
Have you ever been to a library other than you own?