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.
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 –!
i can just see it.
As with , 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.
To buy this book, click here