Saturday, July 24, 2010

R holds forth on 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

84, Charing Cross Street by Helene Hanff
Penguin, 1990
How I got this book: The library.
Why I read this book: I heard that it's about books... and I like books.

Right then.

I cried.

I’m just going to lay my cards down right at the start. I wasn’t chopping onions. I didn’t get something in my eye. I cried, like a baby with a stinky nappy and an empty tummy in the middle of the night.

What can I say? I may have cried watching the first Hulk movie, but I promise you that my judgment isn’t really that skewed. This little book is seriously moving.

84, Charing Cross Road is a collection of letters sent between the NYC denizen Helene Hanff in and the employees of the secondhand bookshop – or bookstore – Marks & Co., located at the titular address in London.

It starts out as Hanff’s bibliophilic quest to hunt down some of the more obscure titles on her TBR list. It’s something I’m relatively familiar with, so in a way I felt like I identified with her right from the start.

I do love secondhand books that open to the page some previous owner read oftenest. The day Hazlitt came he opened to ‘I hate to read new books,’ and I hollered ‘Comrade!’ to whoever owned it before me.

A funny secondhand book enthusiast? My kind of person.

Over the years, the relationship between the booksellers and their faraway customer grows. It becomes apparent that she matters greatly to them (and they to her) despite never having met in person. It’s just delightful to watch how Hanff’s little gestures of kinship melt the stiff-upper-lip professionalism of her initial correspondent Frank Doel, as the restrained decorum of his early letters gradually seep away and are replaced with warmth.

This edition has a foreword by Anne Bancroft, who played Helene Hanff in the film (which I haven’t seen) based on the book. In it, she writes that attachment to the volume stemmed from how these little exchanges reminded her of a friend of hers… That’s really how it was for me. Through the letters between Helene and the employees at the little bookshop half a world away, I could feel the echoes of conversations I’ve had with friends – both over a distance and “in real life”; both still with us and now lost.

I’m making the assumption that, if you’re reading this blog, you have a passion for books and an appreciation for the border-transcending sense of community shared by readers all around the world. To you I holler, ‘Comrade!’ and recommend this book. Even if you find there are elements of these letters that you might not unconditionally adore – Helene’s somewhat aggressive cajoling, perhaps, or Frank’s indomitable reticence – the booklover in you will identify with some of it, somewhere.

Strange as I feel about rating a collection of real correspondences (I’m giving stars to somebody’s life!), I’m giving 84, Charing Cross Road 4 stars.


  1. This sounds like my kind of book! Great review!

  2. This one sounds great! I'll have to add it to my list; I also love used books and the people that could have read them.

  3. Ooh this sounds so cute. Adding it to my list.


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