Book Reviews
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A Transatlantic Friendship – 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Had I not been forced to read this book, I might have never laid my hands on it. I am not too keen on taking up recommendations whether they are from my friends or not because I would like to believe that I have a very distinct taste and I’d hate to experience disappointment when expectations are not met.

But there are rare occasions when I do read a book shoved to my face. If you want to capture such moments, make sure that 1.) the book isn’t a doorstopper, something that would not greatly affect my monthly reading plan, and 2.) tell me what page you cried and why. If these requirements are in hand, try me.

84, Charing Cross Road is a series of letters both regularly and sporadically exchanged between an American writer and a British bookseller. A chance inquiry ignited a friendship that stretched for two decades, and really, thinking about it with modern contexts in mind make their relationship seem almost impossible, but there it is. The bookshop once stood at Charing Cross Road, and those letters are a testament to their friendship.

It is the loveliest old shop straight out of Dickens, you would go absolutely out of your mind over it.

There are stalls outside and I stopped and leafed through a few things just to establish myself as a browser before wandering in. It’s dim inside, you smell the shop before you see it, it’s a lovely smell, I can’t articulate it easily, but it combines must and dust and age, and walls of wood and floors of wood. Toward the back of the shop at the left there’s a desk with a work-lamp on it, a man was sitting there, he was about fifty with a Hogarth nose, he looked up and said “Good afternoon?” in a North Country accent and I said I just wanted to browse and he said please do.

That is a short description of the bookshop as seen by one of Helene’s friends. You see, Helene is too broke to visit London on a whim so she has to rely on her friends to see what this shop is really like. Quite ironic; she claims it as her bookshop and yet, it only exists in the letters that she receives and her imagination.

The letters are engaging, humorous, quirky, and filled with the warmth of long-distance friendship. We read of Helene’s attempt to puncture the English reserve of Frank, and we see the results. The two mostly talked about which books are available and which books are yet to be found, but somewhere along the way, the two started dropping hints about their personal lives. Helene also sent some help not only to Frank but to the whole staff of the bookshop, and this can be seen in the letters of gratitude that everyone sent to her.

Any book lover would feel the joy of buying and reading books that Helene describes in her first few letters to Frank. No, we are not referring to those occasional readers who claim to love reading (and who have only read commercial books). We mean those who love staring at book covers for hours, running their fingers on book shelves, sniffing the smell of books both old and new, hoarding books both from regular and secondhand bookshops, and so on.

With the emergence of e-(insert noun here), I feel the book filled with nostalgia for the world that’s keeling over and for the old times are slowly slipping away. In time, I will become one of those endangered species who only buy paper books. I have a strong resolve not to give in to the temptations of e-readers. I have nothing against Nooks and Kindles, but I am worried that the electronic media will completely take over the publishing industry sometime in the future. I am fervently hoping that it will not happen during this lifetime.

Finishing the book makes me wish that I’d find someone who would write me a letter, a real letter delivered by the postal system, that just rants and raves about the books that the sender has recently read. I’m not betting high on that, but it’s a pretty comforting thought. I used to have a pen pal for three years until e-mail destroyed our manual correspondence, so perhaps my wish isn’t totally in vain.

Finally, I’d like to pass this book to anyone who’s interested. I don’t know who started this idea, but since this book was unofficially given to me, I might as well do the same. So far, there are four book lovers waiting to be comrades. I’d love to see that number swell.



  1. “sniffing the smell of books both old and new”
    ^ HAHA my life :)) Part of why I love my Harry Potter books is because they still smell the same after ten years!

    I first heard of the movie version of this (which I have yet to watch – I hear it’s good) and have been curious about it ever since. Can I get in line to borrow the book? :D


    • I’ve seen the film recently and Mr Stevens, I mean Anthony Hopkins, is there! Sure, so you’re now fifth in line. :)


  2. Can’t wait to see this in my “mailbox” soon! I used to write to Santa Claus until my friends told me Santa isn’t real. Boohoo!


  3. I have seen the film but have only read excerpts from the book. I am an old romantic and just love this kind of old fashioned long distance romance.


    • The movie is loyal to the book, and it must have been a challenge to write the screenplay. Anthony Hopkins looks good as Frank!


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