#176 ~ 84, Charing Cross Road

Cover of 84, Charing Cross Road

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

84, Charing Cross Road has to be one of the most charming books I’ve read in a long time.  It also showed me how I assume almost everything I read is fiction.  It took me about a quarter of the book to think: “The American has the same name as the author.”  This book is a compilation of actual letters written between Helene, a starving American writer who loves high quality (read not American) used books, and the staff of the Marks & Co., Booksellers at 84, Charing Cross Road in London, England.  While a majority of the correspondence is between Helene and Frank Doel, a couple of his co-workers write to her on the sly.  Eventually, even his wife end up writing to Helene.  This relationship spans 40 years and is a testament to the friendships that can be made through the love of books.

This book, at just a scant 97 pages, was a quick read.  I bought it around lunch time on a Saturday afternoon and had it finished before dinner –  including time out for the family.  I loved the life and humor in the letters.  I loved the distinction between American ways of communicating and the more traditional and formal British.  Helene’s constant good-natured ribbing of Frank was so delightful.  Clearly Helene takes after my Dad’s family – they only tease the people they like.  The best example occurs after Frank inquires as to whether Helene would like him to send her a particular volume.  He was inclined to ask because she is on a tight budget, doesn’t much care for first editions, and she hadn’t previously requested it.  Here is Helene’s response:

he has a first edition of Newman’s University for six bucks, do i want it, he asks innocently.

Dear Frank:

Yes, I want it.  I won’t be fit to live with myself. I’ve never cared about first editions per se, but a first edition of THAT book –!

oh my.

i can just see it.

As with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, this book highlighted the lost art of letters.  Just because we can now almost instantaneously communicate with nearly everyone around the world whenever we want to, it doesn’t mean that we haven’t lost something.  Today, I can email, text, or leave a comment on Facebook 24/7.  Because it takes so little effort, there is something lacking.  When all communication took days and weeks to arrive, I think people were more attentive to what they wrote.  They put more of themselves into the process.  I don’t need to take the time to be sure I’ve included everything anymore because following up is just another click away.  Don’t get me wrong, I love to receive emails, etc.  I always will.  They will never, however, replace a hand written or even typed letter.

I cannot say enough about 84, Charing Cross Road.  I so appreciate that Helene and the staff at Marks & Co. consented to publishing the letters.  As with The Uncommon Reader, this book is a tribute to readers everywhere. Although these letters began shortly after the end of World War II, the love of books and the kinship between book lovers is universal and timeless. This book is a treasure worthy of owning and reading repeatedly.


Slightly off topic: I attempted to buy this book the last time I was at a large, chain bookseller.  I couldn’t remember the author’s name, but I remembered the title.  After waiting 10-ish minutes at the Customer Service desk, they were unable to find the book in their database.  I had them try “84 Charing Cross Road” and “82 Charing Cross Road” (they made me second guess myself).  By the time we were both ready to give up, it was too late for me to wait again in line to purchase a book anyway.  After the kids went to bed that evening, I typed “Charing Cross Road” in to the same bookseller’s website.  First item returned? The movie.  The second item returned? The book.  Why in the world would a company make the in-store database so picky (only reason I can figure that they wouldn’t have found the book) while the website is so robust?  If I worked there I would be on the website.  Even then, how could a person working in a bookstore not know about this book????  Snarky, I know.  The proprietor at Printer’s Ink, my new favorite independent bookstore, didn’t know what I was talking about either.  Tsk. Tsk.


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  • At 2009.06.29 20:27, Valerie said:

    Funny, by the end of your first paragraph, I was wondering how this book compared to the Guernsey one :-).

    I’ve heard of it (and I don’t work in a bookstore)– since you enjoyed it, I will have to keep my eyes out for it.
    .-= Valerie´s last blog .. =-.

    • At 2009.06.29 20:58, caite said:

      oh, another one that languishes in my TBR pile, bought on someone’s, I forget whose, recommendation.
      I must pull it out….

      • At 2009.06.29 21:16, Kathy said:

        I’ve had this on my wish list ever since I heard it compared to Guernsey. It didn’t realize the letters are real, though. I will definitely have to get this soon.
        .-= Kathy´s last blog .. =-.

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        • At 2009.06.29 21:24, Alyce said:

          I really liked this book too. I’m sure that the reason the booksellers didn’t know about it was because it’s an older title. I think booksellers get used to pushing new titles.

          A similar thing happened to my husband last year when he was looking for a copy of Confessions by St. Augustine. The young gentleman who was working there was sure that the store didn’t have a copy because he had never heard of it. 🙂 Then he looked it up on the computer and found it.
          .-= Alyce´s last blog .. =-.

          • At 2009.06.29 21:36, Lisa said:

            Will have to keep an eye out for it–particularly in light of the fact that the bookstore won’t be able to find it for me!
            .-= Lisa´s last blog .. =-.

            • At 2009.06.29 22:43, Marg said:

              I had heard of this book but finally added it to my TBR list after I heard so many comparisons to Guernsey. Maybe I should actually try to read it!

              • At 2009.06.29 23:00, Carey said:

                This is perhaps my favorite book of all time. I re-read it about once a year, just take an afternoon for myself and sit down with it. I just love it. I recently gave it to my Mom to read and she came in later with tears streaming down her face, saying “Why didn’t you tell me it was sad?” Well a bit sad, but also funny and completely wonderful. There is an excellent sequel called “The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street,” if you liked this one you’ll like it, too (she finally gets there).

                By the way, the movie is fabulous. Anne Bancroft read the book and instantly fell in love with it. Without her knowledge, her husband Mel Brooks bought the film rights for her. One of my favorite movies ever. Anthony Hopkins is Frank, Anne is Helene.

                When I first read the book, Helene was still alive. I sent her a note and she sent me a handwritten note back! It is one of my most treasured things, tucked away in my copy of the book.

                • At 2009.06.30 02:06, Violet said:

                  I’ve had this happen to me many times. Being a software engineer all I can tell you is the problem is 100% with the software. They should allow searching with a single word too. It’s not really difficult to achieve that.

                  Nice review by the way, this book is on my wishlist.

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                  • At 2009.06.30 10:19, Lindymc said:

                    Since I follow your blog on Google Reader, I can only post a comment by going back to your acual site. Therefore I don’t often post a comment, but felt the need to do so this morning. After seeing the movie with Anne Bancroft, I immediately ordered the book, its sequel Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, and then later I ordered Q’s Legacy. All three are absolutely delightful. And, I also loved Guernsey.

                    • At 2009.06.30 11:38, Holly said:

                      This is one of my favorite books. Truly a charming novel. The film is so well done. You must watch it!!
                      .-= Holly´s last blog .. =-.

                      • At 2009.06.30 17:31, Meghan said:

                        This is on my wishlist! I’m so glad you liked it. I really need to acquire it soon.
                        .-= Meghan´s last blog .. =-.

                        • At 2009.06.30 18:26, Angie said:

                          So happy to see this one get the attention it deserves. What a gem. Lovely review!
                          .-= Angie´s last blog .. =-.

                          • At 2009.07.01 00:59, Carrie K. said:

                            I read 84, Charing Cross Road this spring on an afternoon at the park while the kids played – and absolutely loved it!
                            .-= Carrie K.´s last blog .. =-.

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                            • At 2009.07.01 13:40, Andi said:

                              Yay! I’m glad you loved this one as much as I did. I read it last year, and sucked it down in no time after watching the movie adaptation. Great, sweet, charming book. And it made me cry!

                              • At 2009.07.01 14:12, Nymeth said:

                                I actually ordered myself a copy of this today 😀 I bet I’ll love it; it really sounds like a complete delight.

                                And wow…you’d think a bookstore would want their search system to actually find books. So that they can actually sell them and all. Might come in handy.

                                • At 2009.07.01 23:00, Jennifer said:

                                  To those of you who have read this book, I’m so glad to have joined your ranks. It’s delightful. As many of you suggest, I really need to rent the movie. I love Anthony Hopkins.

                                  LindaMC ~ Thank you so very much for taking the time to leave a comment. I am so glad that this review was the one to prompt you to make yourself known. It’s such an incredible book. Thanks also for following my blog. Comments or no comments, I really appreciate everyone who takes the time to visit or read my feed.

                                  Carey, that is so incredible that you got a letter from Helene!!! What a treasure. I do need to read the sequel. I didn’t know about that.

                                  Valerie, Kathy, Marg ~ I am comparing this novel with Guernsey because of the letter format. I suppose in a way it is similar, but I wouldn’t put the books in the same category. Does that make sense?

                                  Caite, Lisa, Violet, Meghan, Nymeth ~ You will not be disappointed reading this book. Carrie K’s description of where she read it says it all. What a peaceful feeling.

                                  • At 2009.07.02 16:54, Bonnie said:

                                    This is one of my favorite books. I love epistolary style novels. I haven’t read the sequel and haven’t seen the movie. I’ll have to do that soon!

                                    I’m glad that you finally found a copy and at least it’s not out of print.
                                    .-= Bonnie´s last blog .. =-.

                                    • At 2009.07.11 11:40, designer bedding said:

                                      designer bedding…

                                      Reader puasmommy just spotted an Adios Star Plush Throw Pillow for pre- order on Tenacious Toys. The description says that STRANGEco says the pillows may be released this summer, but there is no concrete date. Each pillow will be about 2 feet tall and …

                                      • At 2012.07.11 01:36, dog eared copy said:

                                        This year, when I was on my shot novel/novella kick, I re-read the epistolary classic, 84, Charing Cross Road and its diary sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (both by Helene Hanff.) When 84, Charring Cross Road first appeared on my required reading list in high school, I avoided it because I though it was a collection of maudlin love letters. When I did finally get around to reading it as a young adult, I was pleasantly surprised that they weren’t those sort of love letters and I’ve held the book in fond memory ever since. In going back to 84, Charing Cross Road this time, however, it didn’t hold up as well for me, mainly because I didn’t like Ms Hanff as much. I was dismayed at her sarcastic sense of humor and wondered what it was in her writings that made her so appealing to her foreign correspondents-cum-pen pals. I went on to read The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (the recent acquisition of which was the reason for my re-reading 84, Charing Cross Road), which is a diary of Ms Hanff’s trip to London. It was okay, even if Ms Hanff seemed a bit obsessed with her wardrobe. While I loved neither of the books, I liked them together, a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I was disappointed to go online and find very few pictures or other visuals in regards to 84, Charing Cross Road/The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. I would have loved to have seem Ms Hanff’s library, the bookstore when it was still open and, the staff’s personal pictures which are often referred to – but never reproduced in the books.

                                        • At 2012.07.11 02:00, dog eared copy said:

                                          OMG, I am so sorry! I’m tired and fussy and writing tired and fussy comments about a book you really liked. I need to go to bed; but not before I add that, yes, writing letters is a forgotten art and pleasure: You would craft content and imagine the reader; you would read a letter and hear the other person’s voice. There was a certain intimacy to the personal letter that’s lost in the e-mail messages and the 140-character tweets. The mere act of composing a letter required a certain discipline that is completely gone now (to wit, writing comments on blogs late at night!) I wonder at my own disappointment with the book if it’s not a reflection on how I have changed with the times: When I first read the book, it was still an age of letters. I could detect epistolary nuance and project intent as I had an understanding of Letters. Now, I write messages and require emoticons to show intent. Hmmm, something for me to sleep on… 🙂

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                                          • At 2013.08.26 04:00, Monday Mini ~ Frances and Bernard said:

                                            […] loved 84, Charing Cross Road. There is something about telling a story, be it fiction or non-fiction, through letters that […]

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