84, Charing Cross Road | The story that successfully uses a comma in the title.

“you leave me sitting here writing long margin notes in library books that don’t belong to me, some day they’ll find out i did it and take my library card away.”

Thanks, Katie dear.

During my letter writing month, Claire kept suggesting I read 84, Charing Cross Road.  I don’t usually enjoy books written in letter form, but in this case, it’s a true story of a woman writing letters to a bookshop (and its many characters, mainly Frank Doel).  I think I can get on the bus for a book of letters that is really about books, which inevitably makes it a book about books.  Perks of Being a Wallflower kind of failed that test.  I never even got through The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (sigh).

I felt so much like myself reading these letters, as if it had suddenly appeared in the library stacks and eeked out of its glossy plastic cover and asked me to dance.

While most of the times I find small bits of camaraderie with characters in the folds of the pages I read, in this book I felt utter completeness with Helene, as if I was her only in a new life where I could skype my way into British bookstores and buy the Doel’s nylons at the grocery.

Helene is a character you love from the first page – she’s both pushy, and darling.  I particularly loved when she typed in all caps to show her hurried excitement, or sarcasm.  In every way, I felt like this could be a woman who shared a piece of soul with me as if a soul can be broken and misplaced, or borrowed.

Interrupters, worse than tax collectors in Shakespeare’s day.

Earlier today, Swamplandia left a small post-it note on its cover for me, and I imagine Claire’s push for me to read this book was much like this post-it note.  It’s as if she knew I would perfectly relate.

84, Charing Cross Road is a book you read aloud.  Depending on your mood, and your attitude, you will read it aloud in a British accent.  (You may even drink tea, pinky up).  I was lucky enough to read most of it in the closed off space of a car (pity I wasn’t going through a car wash at the time, I do so love to read, and dance during the car wash.  See, the accent is already taking over my typing).  Either way, I am always moving my lips while I read.  I hardly move my teeth at all, but even as I type this I am making out the words with my lips.  It’s slight, mostly upper lip, and it usually keeps interrupters away because they know you’re clearly busy having a conversation with a paperback.  That soft hiss of spit at the corner of your mouth when you’re moving your lips so fast because you can’t wait to read what happens next, that’s when you know, you’ve successfully scared them all away.

Reading the correspondence between Helen Hanff and the bookish few of 84, Charing Cross Road was like reading into a past life.   I like to believe bookish people automatically have old souls.  Bookish people have been through so much in their four-thousand past lives that they can really appreciate the quiet of words, the soft sweep of turned pages, the pencil smudges in the margins.  It’s the little things I suppose.  A small history can be drudged up from just a highlighted page, or a note reading, “here, happy,” or “gender notions.”  I like to think bookish people are also passive aggressive which leads to a lot of angry notes shoved under bedroom doors.  (I think my mother can attest to my being this way, especially from ages 13 to 16).

I don’t know anyone with a love of books who shouldn’t read 84, Charing Cross Road.  Helene’s love of books is undeniable and she writes Mark & Co. staff during a time when everything is unreasonable.  There are rations on all kinds of foods in England, especially eggs and meats.  Imagine a life without cake, and yet, the bright spot in every person’s life is this bookstore that lives through food droughts, wars, deaths, and in the end, closes before Hanff can ever get into its doors to smell the dust, and myrrh of antiquarian books. (We had to get Biblical in order to really understand that smell).

84 Charing Cross Road, Marks & Co.

There’s so many things to love in just 97 pages.  Side note: I love books that end on an odd number, solely because I think it takes someone unafraid of superstation to pull this off.

After recently reading Jillian’s blog at A Room of One’s Own I’ve been thinking about my own mark on things here in the book blogger stratosphere.  She discusses her stance as a book blogger and her stance on recommendations about books.  She holds to the statement that she would rather not be considered some sort of “elite reader” that people follow.  I have to be honest and tell you that I follow Jillian because I can’t really stand many of the Classics and she seems to inspire (in me) a reason to search through their coy pages.

Anywho, while reading 84, I was touched by how much Helene’s love of books really inspires the reader to form bonds with characters.  I was ready to jump into John Donne and visit the cobblestones of Oxford. (I’m not even sure there are cobblestones, I’m just fantasizing).   I think without even meaning to Helene has inspired a large group of people to read again.

And this is my question: isn’t that what we’re all doing here?  Obviously, part of my blog is to impart my own unique tastes, and statements onto the world, but it’s also to convince people to plunge into books rather than facebook, or Law & Order.  I write this blog because I want to inspire people to scribble their secrets into that small half-inch of space between paragraph and page end.  When Helene discusses this quote:

“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 some one long gone has called my attention to.)”

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

I find myself pencilling into my diary the page number, and wanting to go home and permanent marker my name into the top of every book on my shelf.  It is so like me to hoard books, but maybe I need to caress them, pencil them, and send them off into the world again.  When I come to a book with a page turned over I find myself wondering if the page was turned in haste; if their bus stop came up abruptly because they were so completely lost in the fantasy, or if later they planned on copying the sentence into their journals.  I copy sentences into a journal so that I never really mark up a book, but why is that?  Why don’t I share with the world where I found my most intimate moments with these characters, my most intimate moments with myself.

This is a bit of a jumbled mess, but I think as a book blogger I do dedicate myself to books and in that way I dedicate myself to words, and readers, and sharing, and margin notes, and dog-earred triangle flaps, and the statements I put out there about the books I read.  In a way I always feel personally indebted to these books that I just want to hold in my fists and breathe in like a child’s soft head.  I’m not sure how I can remove myself from my opinions and the opinions I sometimes force on this blog.  As a reader of my blog you have to realize that the push of my opinions is from the physical thaw I feel after reading a story that literally changes me in some way.   I either miss myself, or push myself, or feel myself again after a long withdrawal.

Visit Vincenzorizzo’s etsy page (by clicking this image) to see his other prints. They’re amazing.

On this blog I share books that make me remember myself, and make me expect difference, or expect change.  84 Charing Cross Road is easily one of these books.  If nothing else it inspired me to write more letters, and read more books.  Isn’t that the only thing we can ask from books and from book bloggers, that they inspire the sense of reading, that they inspire us to live in two worlds; one of reality and one of fiction.  Countless people have said that writers are good liars, but what’s to say that readers aren’t, we are always living double lives.

This blog is very much – a girl on the page, and a girl walking about the world.

44 thoughts on “84, Charing Cross Road | The story that successfully uses a comma in the title.

  1. Jessica Hodgson says:

    I loved 84, Charing Cross Road. It was such a lovely book and a book about love as well. This was a wonderful post about the book too! I know that not everyone loves movie adaptations of books, but you might consider seeing this one http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0090570/, if nothing else because Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins are just wonderful.

    • Cassie says:

      I’ve been seeing the movie photos everytime I google the book and it looks really amazing. Thanks for the recommendation – I’ll have to rent it.

  2. alenaslife says:

    Another wonderful post Cassie. You’ve made me want to rush out to read 84, Charing Cross Road. I thank you for sharing your voice and your unique perspective on books, writing and reading. You do it well.
    I haven’t written a letter in ages, but I’m a fan of epistolary (is that the word?) books. Thanks for the recommendation.

    • Cassie says:

      That is the word! I’ve been seeing it on all these posts, but decided not to use it in this one.

      And thank you for your kind words, darling. I will hopefully continue to take up my small space of internet. : ) Let me know if you read it.

  3. gajenn says:

    Wow, serendipty – I literally just bought this as work last night to read this week! Now I am even more glad I did :)

  4. Amy Pirt says:

    I was about to suggest you read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Society…until I saw you didn’t finish it. I really loved it.

    • Cassie says:

      Literally every reader I trust and adore loves that book. I’m not sure what happened with me. Maybe it was bad timing. I’m definitely going to try again after seeing all these wonderful comments about it. I own it and everything so I just need to find it in the moving boxes. : )

  5. Fiona says:

    My aunt sent me this book (which also included the sequel whose title I can’t remember) and I loved it. I’ve always enjoyed the quaint differences between British and American people. Helene Hannff and Frank Doel represent those differences so well – and more amusing because of course these are real letters. American brashness and English reserve.

    It was this book actually that inspired me to read Samuel Pepys. Her outrage at being sent a mere abridged version and her threat to rip the pages and use them as packing just made me want to read Pepys. So I bought a small book containing a selection from his diaries. Loved it and plan one day to read the entire thing only it is a rather heavy undertaking, I think.

    Anyway, reading that lead me to reading Samuel Pepys: An Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin who has since become one of my favourites. I’d never been into reading biographies before but I wholly enjoyed reading about Samuel Pepys’ life and went on to read her biography on Jane Austen too. Without Helene Hanff I would never have discovered Pepys, I would never have discovered Claire Tomalin either and maybe wouldn’t have been so open to reading other biographies.

    84 Charing Cross Road is such a small book, but it opened up a new passage of reading for me, one that is still alive for me. I am at the moment reading some literary essays by Claire Tomalin, things I would not ordinarily read, but because I enjoy this author I am exploring a different avenue then I would normally.

    Reading is such a personal journey. The path I took to reading literary essays could not have been predicted. It’s been a long while since I read 84 Charing Cross Road (perhaps 7 years) and yet if I hadn’t read that book, I would not be reading the book I am reading now. I would not be so interested in Samuel Pepys and I would not know as much as I do today.

    For these reasons, I have very fond memories of 84 Charing Cross Road.

    • Cassie says:

      I love your brief history of reading here, and Claire Tomalin is fantastic – so glad you dipped into another venue with her. Thank you, thank you, for this comment. I love to hear about everyone’s journey to reading and how they found themselves in books, and what types of books they’ve discovered they enjoy. It’s just a wonderful way to lead a life, I think.

      I will have to read Pepys as well – while I was reading, I was jotting down all the books Helene mentions so that I can look into them later. I’m not really a Shakespeare gal because I had a horrible Shakespeare professor in college (I thought he was going to be good because he had the tweed coat with elbow pads, but I was mistaken). I’m willing to give him more of a try – I do adore Midsummer Night’s Dream. Either way, I want to visit all the places she went to, even those that involve Shakespeare.

  6. On and Off Book says:

    This is really lovely. I suspect I’m more of a sucker for the epistolary form than you are (I mean, it can tip over into the twee very easily, but when it doesn’t), but: everything you’ve said here makes me think you might want to give Guernsey another try. I am hardly objective about that book because I worked on it (I’m a production editor) and Mary Ann Shaffer died while we were in copyediting, and it was her life work, and so forth and so on. But it really is a love letter to books and the power of the written word even in very dark times (and very consciously inspired by 84, Charing Cross Road).

    On another topic entirely: another book with TWO commas in the title: Baltimore, Or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire.

    • Cassie says:

      So, let me start off by saying that I hope to be you one day.

      I will have to give Guernsey another try – that personal anecdote you just shared makes me want to read it even more. I will definitely dedicate myself to it now. Any book that can be summed up by saying, “…it really is a love letter to books and the power of the written word even in very dark times,” I have to read.


  7. Ryan says:

    I loved 84, Charing Cross Road. It’s possibly my favorite book about books (Shadows of the Wind is right there, I must admit). I surprised myself by liking this book so much. I think I’ll read it again, tomorrow.

    • Cassie says:

      I haven’t read Shadows of the Wind – but now I will add it to my list. Do read it again, it only takes one sitting anyhow. I love books that surprise me in any way, I love it.

  8. laurakatherin says:

    I do love marking up books. I don’t feel like I’m really reading unless I have a pencil/pen in hand. That becomes a problem when I borrow books from people. I’m reading a book that I borrowed from my mom right now. I like to see where she has underlined and arrowed and put smiley faces. And since I can’t NOT, I am making my marks in pencil, so they more quiet than a dark pen or a highlighter.

    I’ll have to check out that book!

    • Cassie says:

      I love that you say, “my marks in pencil, so they’re more quiet than a dark pen or a highlighter” That’s a beautiful sentiment.

      Thank you for sharing, you’ve inspired me to mark.

  9. kiwidutch says:

    After reading your refreshing review I see that I’ll have to add “84”to my “must read list”… sounds well worth looking for, I have my doubts that I’ll find it on the shelves of a Dutch bookshop or in the local library but I’m sure I can get it on-line. Thanks for the tip! :)

    • Cassie says:

      I loved finding books that were recommended to me in Australia libraries. It was always such a surprise. I hope you do find it in the most strange of places. :)

  10. Bea says:

    I do believe you need to return to marking up books. I know how excited you get when you find a book with markings, or anything personal from it’s past owner. Remember when you found Claire’s receipt in a book. We still don’t know who Claire is, but you had her all figured out just from the receipt.
    So, with all that said, do mark up a book or two and put a smile on someone’s face. Let someone ponder why you marked that page, why the coffee spilled on that particular page, and if they find a receipt, let them create you from all your purchases.
    Great blog!

  11. Caroline says:

    I want to read this NOW, too bad that it’s just after midnight and my local Waterstones is closed and oh, I need sleep. Never mind, I love the style you wrote this in and I will read the whole book as soon as the circumstances about have changed! ;) x

    • Cassie says:

      I wish you were reading it NOW. It’s a shame that there aren’t 24 hour bookstores around. DANG.

      And thank you for the kind words. You’ll have to let me know what you think of it. Definitely send me your play-by-play while you read!

  12. Let's CUT the Crap! says:

    Why is there NO *love* button? Although I have a mountains of books waiting and lists the length of a grain train, I might just run out to buy this book NOW (maybe tomorrow, it’s late now).

    Might I suggest a series of books by John Dunning (Cliff Janeway novels about books), who is an expert on rare and collectible books. I ate them up like forbidden frenchfires. Kind of mystery tales about books, love, crime, murder and books found. . .

  13. angela says:

    The book has been on my list for ages, thank you for the reminder. That said, I watched the movie in my early 20s and fell in love with it. I’ve seen it many times and wonder how it compares to the book. As I type this, I can see Anne Bancroft lambasting Anthony Hopkins for using an old book’s torn pages to package a new book…classic.
    If you’ve not, read Europa Editions (or it is part of that small press’s offspring), The Novel Bookstore….me thinks you’ll enjoy ~ a

    • Cassie says:

      I can’t wait to see this movie because everyone is raving about it. Sounds wonderful. I am writing that book recommendation down on a post-it for my diary right now. Thank you, thank you.

  14. Claire 'Word by Word' says:

    My oh my, is that the most inspiring post or what!

    I am delighted to see how many people want to read this book, I want to write to those people who are republishing medium age classics and ask them to reprint this one like new, this is SO a book that all readers need to read. I love how we have all become a little Helene and Frank-like today via our blogs, connecting, sharing and recommending to each other worldwide.

    Pure joy to witness her crack the English reserve with her lofty intellectual requests and ‘say it how it is’ raw emotion, yet she is suffused with such kindness.

    Wouldn’t you love to be sharing a tea or coffee with her. And to think you still have the film to enjoy. So glad it popped its head up and reminded me of a wonderful journey of letters, a fitting end to your challenge Cassie.

    • Cassie says:

      All thanks to you, my dear. So, so, so happy you gave me this recommendation. You must have known how much I was going to just eat this book up, and it’s literally edible because it can be read in one setting.

      You’re spot on with the “lofty intellectual” and the raw emotion. I would so love to be her friend. I think she inspired me to make sure I visit you at some point through these long years of letter writing that we’re going to accomplish here.

      That book was like the old version of blogging – sharing all of our joys over the written word here is so much like a global love letter to books. I just love it.

  15. Judith Brown says:

    I saw this play in London more than 25 years ago. It was wonderful. One of my favorite experiences and the principal actors read it to each other. She in a New York accent, he British. Love this book.

    • Cassie says:

      Oh, that’s wonderful! I would love to see a play where characters read to one another. Thank you so much for sharing. I didn’t even know it was a play! BAH!


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