I came across this delightful little book in the bookstore, where I read it in two (rather spaced out) short sittings. It is a collection of letters between Helene Hanff, an American television writer in New York, and Frank Noel (and friends), an Englishman working in an old bookshop in London. The letters begin in 1949 when Helene requests a rare book she is unable to locate in New York, and continue through 1968 upon Frank’s death. I picked it up half expecting a romantic letter-driven love story, but was actually glad to see it is not that at all – it is the progression of a unique friendship that spans the Atlantic Ocean and years.
Aside from being simply a pleasant short read featuring a whole cast of real people, the letters are interesting in that they offer a genuine view of Britain (and, to a lesser extent, America) at the time. It’s post-World War II that the staff of Marks & Co. Booksellers live in, complete with rationing, the death of a king, the ascent of Queen Elizabeth, and, eventually, the popularity of the Beatles. All these events and more are alluded to as the years advance, as such things are in letters between people of any time. Culturally the progression of the friendship between the two is funny to see, with Helene the brassy outspoken American and Frank the typically reserved Englishman writing such different kinds of letters. Helene teasingly berated Frank and his coworkers so often for neglecting to send her books that I often want to tell them, don’t worry! She’s only teasing! (but fear not, I think they knew it). Case in point: about her visit to London that all involved parties always hoped for, she wrote, “I’m gonna climb up that Victorian book-ladder and disturb the dust on the top shelves and everyone’s decorum”. Despite their differences in manners and writing styles (or probably partly because of them), their friendship and letters lasted for years – thankfully, because now we can read them.
What I took away from the book most was the desire to read more. With all their discussion of old English playwrights, poets, and writers – from Shakespeare to Donne to Austen – all I wanted to do was curl up in a library of old books and learn. In that sense, the book was inspiring and, despite its small size, packs a big punch. Apparently the book was made into a play and a movie, which I’ll have to seek out. And, perhaps even more than making me want to read, 84 Charing Cross Road made me lament the decrease in letter-writing. WHY don’t we write letters anymore?