84, Charing Cross Road

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Penguin Books


Helene Hanff wrote letters all her life, but in addition she studied playwriting at the Theatre Guild, wrote for “The Hallmark Hall of Fame” and “Ellery Queen” and was the first woman president of the Lenox Hill Democratic Club. She wrote many books for children as well as articles for The New Yorker and Harper’s magazines. The author of Q’s Legacy (Penguin), her most recent book was Letter from New York: BBC Woman’s Hour Broadcasts. Ms. Hanff died in April of 1997.

-from 84, Charing Cross Road

The first part of that very first sentence I read of this charming little book captured my heart: Helene Hanff wrote letters all her life. I’ve long been fascinated by the lives of people told through their correspondence. We know many things about the men and women of history because of their correspondence. I often bemoan to my best friend Pam that if I am ever a celebrated authoress there will be no “paper trail” of letters betwixt me and my most intimate… merely inane text messages, whiney Livejournal posts from my late teenage years, and the sometimes interesting but most often boring emails spread across the five or six email address I’ve had over the past 10 years. And while this is all digitally accessible it’s not quite as charming as the hastily typewritten letters sent to Frank Doel.

For me this book was like discovering a secret club. I heard about the book years ago, but it wasn’t until a fated day that I happened to have NPR playing in Rigby whilst driving to work and I heard Diane Rehm discussing with her guests the book The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society that I was reminded I wanted to read 84, CHARING CROSS ROAD. Diane drew a connection between the two books and I immediately pulled up my account for Hillsborough County Public Libraries and requested these two books be held for me.

And then I decided to finish Anna Karenina. All the while 84 sat on my reading table… just staring at me sadly. Luckily, it had TGLaPPS to keep it company. They waited for at least a week while I whined about ever having heard of Russian Literature and thinking it was a good idea to read it to all and sundry. Finally, Anna threw herself under that terrible train, Count Vronsky became a certifiable zombie, and Constantin Levin (thanks to a lightning storm) discovered he loved his wife and son and believed in God. And I was set free from that monstrous collection of tedium. The very night that I finished AK and hit the goal of 25,000 words for NaNo I curled up in bed with Helene and Frank and flew through their 97 pages of banter in about an hour.

I haven’t been completely caught up in a book like that in a long time. I felt a kinship to Helene, an experience made all the sweeter by reading non-fiction. Knowing that the words you’re reading, the thoughts and feelings expressed, aren’t meant to be transcendent like a fictional character’s, but are the momentary ramblings of a real time person creates a sort of bond. It’s the closest we can get to time travel I think… that and crossing time zone lines.

When this slim paperback drew to a close I found myself experiencing a poignant post-book slump. Reading correspondence between a charming woman in New York and a friendly book store clerk in England left me with the intense urge to stowaway and find myself standing at 84, Charing Cross Road. I would hope it would be a day when other tourists would be busier with the other major sights of London and I could wander into the “loveliest old shop straight out of Dickens” and “go absolutely out of my mind over it”. I could rejoice in celebrating books with other book lovers, this rare breed of people who find blots on pages intoxicating. And, happy day! I’d find a book perfect for me… and there the fantasy stops. But it’s a dream I’ll hold on to. I will return to London and read a book.

Next step: perhaps the movie.


On a slightly related note: I’ve decided to read 15 books before the year closes. I noticed on Goodreads the other day that my “books read in 2011” count was 60. I figured I might as well make it a challenge and crank out some impressive numbers in the next few weeks. So, well past the halfway point for NaNoWriMo (and I’ve fallen about 7,000 words behind) and I’ll be sure to carve out more time to read. I’ve finished one book since I decided this and I’m starting a trilogy today. I’ll post the list of my last 15 books of 2011 once I get it finalized. Happy Monday everyone.


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