About Books #10: 84, Charing Cross Road

As far as easy, short books go – this would probably be my top pick of the last couple of years. I so often find myself reading these long books, or entire series in one go, that I forget how much fun it can be to read a nice and short one. With Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road I’ve probably found my favourite adult short book in a while.

Story

Let’s go to Goodreds for this one. “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.”

Now, a little bit of explanation: shortly after the second World War, Helene Hanff writes a letter to a bookshop at 84, Charing Cross Roadwith the intent of finding books for less than $5. That’s it. She wants some books, and things were supposed to stop there. However, because the shop’s manager, Frank Doel, is slightly overly good at his job, he promises to look for more books. Throughout the novel, a friendship develops between these two book-lovers. That’s basically the entire story, and it’s amazing.

Characters

Helene Hanff, the character, is obviously just about completely inspired by Helene Hanff, the writer:

“I am a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books,” she explained.  “If you have clean second-hand copies of any of the books on the list, for no more than $5 each, will you consider this a purchase order and send them to me?”

Through her correspondence with Frank Doel, she basically ends up “meeting” many people in London. She encounters the rest of his family, the rest of the people working at the shop. She sends them Christmas packages (because post-War Britain was still dealing with rationing!) and so on and so forth. Basically, she’s a inherently good person. But she’s not a Mary-Sue. She definitely has her faults (such as there are: she just can’t seem to get herself a decent job), but that only served to make her more likeable.

The same can actually be said about her main correspondent, Frank Doel. He’s the manager of the bookshop at 84, Charing Cross Road and also genuinely loves books. So much so, even, that he works for what’s probably not enough money in a bookshop and amuses himself by striking up conversation with a random woman from the USA who wants pretty books. That’s probably a slight exaggeration, actually, but it is pretty much what the story comes down to.

Narration

This entire book consist of letters. You’d think that might make for quite a dull read, but quite the opposite is true. Throughout the novel, as a reader you really do feel like you get to know the characters, even though you are never directly confronted with them. The way the correspondence slowly evolves from a strictly business-minded exchange of letters to true friendship just shines through even more strongly because of the way the novel was set up. I’m definitely one to love reality-turned-literature. And this book is basically just an excellent example of that.

That this book still reads as Literature-with-a-capital-L, then, is basically just thanks to the style of the characters themselves. Especially their musings on the value of used books really spoke to me. Not just the what, but also the how of their thoughts:

It looks too new and pristine ever to have been read by anyone else, but it has been: it keeps falling open at the most delightful places as the ghost of its former owner points me to things I’ve never read before.

I wish you hadn’t been so 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 someone long gone has called my attention to.)

Overall 5/5

As has by now probably become obvious, I absolutely loved this book. I could definitely recognise myself in many of the points made throughout the letters.

(For example:

It’s against my principles to buy a book I haven’t read, it’s like buying a dress you haven’t tried on.

That’s basically me!)

This is such a quick and fun read, although the ending is quite melancholic and even almost sad, that I would definitely recommend it to everybody! If you love books especially: this may just be the book for you!

If you do feel like you might want to read this one, you can find it on thebookdepository (affiliate link)!

-Saar

PS: “If you happen to pass by 84 Charing Cross Road, kiss it for me? I owe it so much.”