This is a very short review of a very short book. It’s Helene Hanff’s 1971 book “ 84 Charing Cross Road”, a collection of letters she wrote to and received from the antiquarian London bookseller Marks & Co, at 84, Charing Cross Road. When the letter exchange took off in1949, Helene Hanff was a 33 year old New Yorker, trying to make a living off screen writing and similar enterprises, living in a barely heated brownstone, driven by a desire to own beautiful books. Frustrated by what American second-hand bookshops had to offer, i.e. “very expensive rare editions, or Barnes & Noble’s grimy, marked-up school-boy copies”, she decided to send Marks & Co a list of books, or in her words, “a list of my most pressing problems”, asking them to consider the list a “purchase order” provided they didn’t cost more than $ 5.00. During the next 20 years she continued to send letters to England and receive books and letters in return. The clerk who she’s conducting most of her correspondence with is called Frank Doel, and the two of them develop a strange platonic relationship.
The account of that relationship is one of the most beautiful and charming books I have read in quite some time; of all the books I have recently been reading, this is clearly closest to what they call a feel good book. But it’s considerably more interesting than that. To start with, it shares the fascinating qualities all letter exchanges have. When we don’t have an editor providing a commentary, we are thoroughly at the mercy of the intricacies of letter writing. We find that letters are sometimes missing, we find that sometimes between one letter and the next a whole year has passed, things like that. Unless, however, this is your first volume of letters, this is not surprising. In this case, though it makes for a particular effect: her letters are little nuggets of glee. Hanff, who published her own letters, has chosen wisely to chose this form, and we are happier for it. Many letters feel as if I were meeting a kindred spirit. I recognize her joy at hearing about a great book in mint condition
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.
And her indignation at being sent the wrong book:
WHAT KIND OF A PEPYS’ DIARY DO YOU CALL THIS?
this is not pepys’ diary, this is some busybody editor’s miserable collection of EXCERPTS from pepys’ diary
may he rot.
i could just spit. […]
i enclose two limp singles, I will make do with this thing till you find me a real Pepys.
THEN I will rip up this ersatz book, page by page, AND WRAP THINGS IN IT.
See? And there are many more moments like these. Additionally, we learn of her bafflement that some NY library expects her to read without smoking or drinking an occasional martini or two (Yes, I immediately thought of Irene. I half-seriously expected the Wilde Childe to leap from one of the next letters) Please. It is impossible not to love that mad Helene Hanff. And not for these reasons alone. The book gives us a protagonist who is constantly broke, but who sends food packages to her favorite London bookshop because she knows that times are hard and that London citizens are living off rations (also, she voted for Adlai Stevenson).
Interwoven with all these things are issues like translation and other finicky aspects of cultural exchange, not to forget the beauty of how the book employs different levels and perceptions of class, but I cannot be bothered with all these at the moment, while I am still in thrall with that wonderful little book. There are enough of these issues in the book, though, that one marvels at the fact that this is so light and enjoyable a read. It is certainly a book that I will reread a few times. If you give this book the time it needs, I guarantee you’ll laugh, you’ll be moved, and you will be cursing that woman while you run to the retailer of your own choice to compile a list of your own with English books you forgot you wanted. And all of this in under a hundred pages. If that isn’t a miracle, I don’t know what is. If you read this blog, you will like this book. Now go and read it.