84 Charing Cross Road

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
Pages: 95         First published: 1971

The book: Helen Hanff, a writer in New York, collected very old and rare British books. In 1949, she wrote to a bookshop located at 84 Charing Cross Road in London to see if they could obtain some of the books she wanted. So began a correspondence with the bookshop manager and some of the employees that lasted for twenty years. This book is a collection of that correspondence.

You might like it because: Hanff writes witty, amusing, and clever letters. The contrast between her American, informal, friendly style and the initially very formal British style of the replies she received from the bookshop manager make for entertaining reading. The comparison of life in London versus New York post World War II, adds to the book’s interest.

What did other people say? 
“This book is the very simple story of the love affair between Miss Helene Hanff of New York and Messrs Marks and Co, sellers of rare and secondhand books, at 84 Charing Cross Road, London. It is unmitigated delight from cover to cover.” – Daily Telegraph (U.K)

How quickly will you get into the book? Three pages (or letters) in and I was hooked. Curiosity about the letter writers and where this correspondence would go kept me reading to the end.

You might not like it because: The story is told via the letters that Hanff wrote and received from the bookshop manager and staff. This is not a frequently used format for a book so you might find it a bit strange. Hanff collected very old British literature and refers to the books and their authors in her letters. You don’t need to have read the books she refers to, but a passing knowledge of them helps as she sometimes makes jokes related to the book or author. Perhaps you might grow a little frustrated reading about texts by people like John Donne and Chaucer if you are not familiar with them.

What might you read next?
If you want to stick with the bookshop theme, try The Bookseller of Kabul by Asen Seierstad.

If the idea of a story told through correspondence appeals, then read The White Tiger by Arvin Adiga.

Or, perhaps you could read a bit of Hemingway. For Whom The Bell Tolls takes it’s title from a verse by John Donne, one of Hanff’s favorites. Here is that beautiful verse:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

John Donne
1572-1631

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