Book review: 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

84charingTitle: 84, Charing Cross Road
Author: Helene Hanff
Genre: Non-fiction, epistolary memoir
Publisher: Penguin
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: Print copy from the public library
First line: Dear Madam, In reply to your letter of October 5th, we have managed to clear up two-thirds of your problem.

I took the kids to the park yesterday afternoon after school. It was gorgeous, sunny, temperature in the 80s. We stopped at the library on the way, and picked up 84, Charing Cross Road, which was waiting for me on the hold shelf.

As the kids played, I devoured this little book. I have had this book on my to-read list for years, but just never got around to it. I read a review recently (I’m sorry if you’re the blogger who reviewed it – please remind me, as I’d love to give you credit) that convinced me to click over to the library web site and put it on hold. I am so glad I did!

84, Charing Cross Road is an epistolary book, comprised of the correspondence between writer Helene Hanffe and the staff of a bookshop in London. She primarily corresponds with Frank Doel, the associate who finds the out-of-print books that she desires to feed her bok addiction. Various staff members at Marks & Co., as well as Doel’s wife Nora, also begin to write Ms. Hanff.

I was amazed at how emotionally involved I could get simply from reading these people’s letters. I found myself laughing, smiling, and at times tearing up over the letters. Not only are the letters witty and engaging, but they are full of sentiments that Ms. Hanff’s fellow book-lovers will find familiar.

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. ~ p. 7

I wish you hadn’t been over-courteous about putting the inscription on a card instead of on the flyleaf. It’s the bookseller coming out in you all, you were afraid you’d decrease its value. You would have increased it for the present owner. (And possibly for the future owner. I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages some one long gone has called my attention to.) ~ p. 27

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.

where is jan. 12, 1668, where his wife chased him out of bed and round the bedroom with a red-hot poker?

where is sir w. pen’s son that was giving everybody so much trouble with his Quaker notions? ONE mention does he get in this whole pseudo-book, and me from philadelphia.

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. ~ p. 31*

I houseclean my books every spring and throw out those I’m never going to read again like I throw out clothes I’m never going to wear again. It shocks everybody. My friends are peculiar about books. They read all the best sellers, they get through them as fast as possible, I think they skip a lot. And they NEVER read anything a second time so they don’t remember a word of it a year later. But they are profoundly shocked to see me drop a book in the wastebasket or give it away. The way they look at it, you buy a book, you read it, you put it on the shelf, you never open it again for the rest of your life but YOU DON’T THROW IT OUT! NOT IF IT HAS A HARD COVER ON IT! Why not? I personally can’t think of anything less sacrosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book. ~ p. 54

I just threw out a book somebody gave me, it was some slob’s version of what it was like to live in the time of Oliver Cromwell – only the slob didn’t LIVE in the time of Oliver Cromwell so how the hell does he know what it was like? Anybody wants to know what it was like to live in the time of Oliver Cromwell can flop on the sofa with Milton on his pro side and Walton on his con, and they’ll not only tell him what it was like, they’ll take him there. ~ p. 86

*All grammar and spelling are as originally appears in Ms. Hanff’s letters.

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20 Responses to Book review: 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

  1. Sandy
    Twitter: youvegottaread
    says:

    I love stories communicated through letters (aka Guernsey). I think if done right, it can capture the personality of each correspondent. I can’t believe you read it one sitting! I must be ADHD, I just can’t sit still that long, even if I have the opportunity!

  2. Word Lily
    Twitter: Wordlily
    says:

    I really, really want to read this book.

  3. Beth F
    Twitter: BethFishReads
    says:

    I so loved this book. And the movie was well worth watching too.

  4. This sounds like a wonderful book! I am glad you enjoyed it, Carrie! Thank you for the great review.

  5. maryb says:

    I loved this book when I read it. I used to order books sometimes from James Thin Booksellers in Scotland back in pre-internet days and I would always send them little notes in the hope that it would turn into a Helene-style correspondence. But they never did anything but send me books without any enclosed notes.

    Loved the movie too.

  6. Kathy says:

    This is on my wish list and after reading your review, I may have to break down and buy it soon.

  7. CarrieK
    Twitter: booksandmovies
    says:

    Sandy – it’s not a very big book – only 97 pages. 🙂

    Word Lily – it’s definitely a must-read!

    Beth – I’m planning to Netflix the movie soon if it’s available on DVD.

    LF – thank you!

    Maryb – people are different now, don’t you think? A lot less likely to be friendly and personable in business situations, in my opinion.

    Kathy – yes, you should move it to the top!

  8. Kim
    Twitter: BookstoreK
    says:

    I loved it! I put the movie on my Netflix list and I’m going to pick up her other books.

  9. CarrieK
    Twitter: booksandmovies
    says:

    Kim – I’m adding it to my Netflix list, too.

  10. Book Psmith says:

    This one definitely deserves 5 out of 5. I loved it as well as the movie. Can’t beat Anne Bancroft and Sir Anthony Hopkins.

  11. CarrieK
    Twitter: booksandmovies
    says:

    Book Psmith – glad to hear the movie holds up, too!

  12. Ladytink_534 says:

    Books about books are always sure winners with me. I love secondhand books too. Great quotes (though the thought of throwing a book away makes me want to cry lol) 🙂 Thanks for the review!

  13. CarrieK
    Twitter: booksandmovies
    says:

    Ladytink – I love books about books, too. 🙂

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  16. Steve says:

    Check out the history of Marks & Co at:
    http://www.84charingcrossroad.co.uk

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  18. Madeleine says:

    This sounds intriguing! I haven’t read many epistolary books, but I, like nearly everyone else, loved The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (a.k.a. “The Guernsey Book”). I agree that letters is a desirable medium when attempting to express character’s exact thoughts. Not to mention the fact that, through the letters, you also get to see the character’s personality expressed through their grammar, word choice, and even the length of the letters. I’m looking forward to exploring your blog further, but I have to go to school right now.
    .-= Madeleine´s last blog ..Rest In Peace, Bookworms. =-.

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