84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (1970)
Summary: It all began with a letter inquiring about second-hand books, written by Helene Hanff in New York, and posted to a bookshop at 84, Charing Cross Road in London. As Helene’s sarcastic and witty letters are responded to by the stodgy and proper Frank Doel of 84, Charing Cross Road, a relationship blossoms into a warm and charming long-distance friendship lasting many years.
I’ve been familiar with this book and wanting to read it for quite some time. But I was waiting for my novella challenge and, once it started, this was the first book I read.
I knew it was a book of correspondence between a woman in New York and a bookseller in London. For some reason I got it into my head that they ended up falling in love which isn’t the case. This book could definitely be viewed as a love story but it has more to do with a love of books than an actual romance.
It is clear that Helene Hanff is very passionate about books. She also has what I would consider to be quite unusual tastes, as she requests books that I’d never heard of, including poetry and works by British authors I’ve never even heard of. I was really hoping I’d come away from the book with a long list of books I just had to go out and read, but alas she and I don’t have similar tastes.
But it did get me thinking about my own reading habits and how I rarely read anything that literary. She had a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of classic authors but she wasn’t just being pretentious about it; she really did love their writing. So even though I wasn’t drawn to pick up anything by John Donne, I realized that it’s important to read whatever you enjoy.
Because the letters are written between 1949 and 1969, I was also impressed at how inexpensive the books were. And it’s amazing how the bookshop, Marks & Co., had such a knowledgeable staff who were able to acquire books so effectively in an era without the internet or Amazon. I can’t even imagine trying to find books or categorize them, learn about the order of a series, or discover works by another author if it weren’t for book blogs and Goodreads.
All in all this book of letters is itself a love letter to books and reading. Helene’s personality shines through in her letters and it’s easy to see how such strong bonds can be forged between book lovers even if they haven’t yet met in person. Not to mention Helene herself seems like such a cool person and you’ll wish you were friends with her as you read.
I did find this book a little sad as Helene kept putting off her trip to England when things like purchasing a new flat or having dental work done got in the way. But the book is realistic for showing that and a lot of people get caught up in their lives and think they have all the time in the world to accomplish their dreams. Unfortunately it sometimes takes big life events or the death of someone to realize how short life is to provide the stimulus we need to take action.
After reading the book I just had to watch the 1987 film adaptation starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins. Unfortunately this book is almost impossible to adapt to film and I found the movie quite boring. There were a lot of scenes of Helene (Anne Bancroft) typing on her typewriter with a voiceover reading out the letter verbatim which isn’t the most interesting thing to watch. So I’d say skip the movie and read the book instead.
Also, if you were dissatisfied with the way this book ended, you can read more about Helene and her trip to London in Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.