Book Reviews, Nonfiction

Book Review: 84, Charing Cross Road

84, Charing Cross Road by Helen Hanff
Published by Penguin Books on October 1st 1990
Pages: 97
Format: Paperback
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New Yorker Helene Hanff loves books, but not just any old books. In 1949, hoping to satisfy her ‘antiquarian taste’ in books and save herself from the exorbitant prices of New York bookstores, this self-described ‘poor writer’ turns to Marks & Co. Booksellers on London’s Charing Cross Road. So begins a 20-year letter exchange between the lively, somewhat salty and sarcastic Ms. Hanff and the oh-so-very-proper and reserved British bookseller Frank Doel… a letter exchange that slowly but surely turns into a touching friendship.

This is the first time I’ve ever taken up on one of its book recommendations. Learning I’d read Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (by spying on me really), the good folks at Amazon tried to hook me up with 84 Charing Cross Road. I obligingly fell for their gimmick, and was totally charmed by the initially perfunctory letter exchange between Helene Hanff and Frank Doel,  which evolves gradually like a gracefully aged wine into a full-bodied friendship. Just as naturally, Hanff finds herself corresponding not only with Frank, but with his family and other Marks & Co. employees. I was thoroughly captivated by this easy read, but especially liked the story of the unfurling friendship, the mini history lesson I received, as well as the discussion of books Hanff wants that I’d never heard of.

With the letter exchange beginning just after WWII, Charing Road is naturally infused with history, both of the historical event variety and the equally important ‘way we lived in the not so distant past’ variety. I loved history in school, but had no interest in 20th-century history. Maybe I figured humankind should have learned to stop warring by then, and couldn’t stomach it. Consequently, my knowledge of this time period is pretty embarrassing. Still, despite my distaste for anything beyond the 19th century, I loved reading about England’s struggles just after the war. I had no idea that rationing still existed three years after the war ended, or how the British handled the situation, and I liked learning about it.

Then, there’s the everyday lifestyle of a bygone era that’s nice to reminisce about if one is old enough to remember. If not that old, it’s still fun to learn a thing or two. For instance, when’s the last time you actually wrote a letter and mailed it…a real honest to goodness letter, not a greeting card. Today, we’re lucky if we even phone or email anymore. We Facebook and Tweet. In 1949, letters were THE way to correspond, and Hanff actually put dollar bills in an envelope and mailed it off to London as payment for books. I thought, she’s nuts. First, it won’t make it there with the money, and second, no way are the British gonna accept American dollars. Wrong! Ah, when life was simpler and somehow sweeter. I liked reading about these tiny, but really enormous everyday contrasts to 21st century life.

Also, there are the letters themselves: each like a dance reflecting not only the writer’s temperament, but also the quintessential contrasts between American and British personalities. Hanff’s letters are a tango, a bold and brassy dance filled with in your face, sometimes sarcastic humor. In contrast, Frank Doel’s responses dance a formal, full of British reserve waltz. It’s charming to see how the two completely different ‘dance’ styles eventually merge and become one fluid movement of friendship and how the ‘steps’ find a matching rhythm as the friendship grows.

Lastly, I enjoyed reading on Hanff’s ‘antiquated taste’ in books, with many titles and authors familiar, but just as many I’d never heard of and mostly have no intention of trying to slog through. Truth is, compared to Ms. Hanff, I read trash. Still, it was a joy to read about these obscure tomes and get albeit a VERY few ideas for my reading list.

This book is a fast, fun, full of interesting info read that I heartily recommend.

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