The short: 4/5 ✦. A funny, fascinating collection of letters between a book lover and a bunch of book sellers and how they all connect with and help each other.
The best thing about this book is how relatable it is. Now, true, I’m not an aspiring writer who lives in New York and sends for cheap obscure literary texts from a small used bookstore in London, but just look at this direct quote:
WHAT KIND OF A PEPYS’ DIARY DO YOU CALL THIS?
this is not pepys’ diary, this is some busybody editor’s miserable collection of EXCERPTS from pepys’ diary may he rot
i could just spit.
where is jan. 12, 1668, where his wife chased him out of bed and round the bedroom with a red-hot poker?
where is sir w. pen’s son that was giving everybody so much trouble with his Quaker intentions? ONE mention does he get in this whole pseudo-book. and me from philadelphia.
i enclose two limp singles, i will make do with this thing till you find me a real Pepys. THEN i will rip up this ersatz book, page by page, AND WRAP THINGS IN IT.
Is this not something that one might read today on Goodreads or Instagram or Facebook? People like to talk about the “degradation of language” in our current society, but it looks like passionate writers have been “ruining” it since 1951! Take particular note of the caps and lowercase lettering to indicate emotion in a strict text form – and done with a typewriter, no less. It all just made me very happy. (And if this style doesn’t appeal to you, not all of Helene’s letters are written like this, she is a very learned and talented writer, but she is also a very passionate lady indeed and expresses her personality amazingly and endearingly through these letters.)
Conversely, Mr Frank Doel and the other shopkeepers are less effusive, but though critics (or at least, the blurb on the back of my copy) seem to have attributed this to the difference between American and British culture, it’s more to do with professionalism. One of the letters from Mr Doel states that all of Helene’s letters were copied and saved for the store records, though by then, he agreed it was unnecessary and became less formal (albeit after about three years of correspondence). There are actual cultural differences, of course, as I think American boldness inspired Helene’s type of writing style (though she admitted that she felt more confident safe in her home 3,000 miles away!). Also, the British were a little preoccupied with post-war goings-on, and I love so much that Helen dedicated the rest of her spending money to sending care packages to her new friends.
This was a quick, easy read, but it was rich in humor and the simple pleasure of having a glimpse into the lives of people who lived (not so) long ago.
Header image: 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, published October 1st 1990 by Penguin Books.