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Monday, October 10, 2022

Review: 84 Charing Cross Road

 84 Charing Cross Road is a collection of letters between Helene Hanff and the staff of Marks and Company, from right after the second world war until approximately 1970. Hanff is looking for cheap second hand books, and starts off by asking for some clean copies. The response from the book sellers and the exchange spread out like ripples in a pond, drawing in not just the staff members but also their families.

The exchanges are at times funny, flirtatious, poignant and literate, sometimes all 3 in the same letter. You see the rise in the standard of living in the UK in the mid 50s, where suddenly they tell her not to send them food any more, as they can now buy whatever they need. You see the lack of healthcare in the USA, where Hanff can no longer visit England as she has to pay her dentist.

The book ends somewhat abruptly, and upon reflection, it's also about the need to seize the day and travel and visit your friends while they're still alive, instead of living with your books and your work. Hanff, for instance, was a writer, and could have worked from anywhere in the world, yet never prioritized visiting the people who kept sending her books she asked for.

It's also a reminder of the times when real people would be the ones who'd pick books off the shelf and ship them to you. I remember once calling a bookstore and having the bookseller pick up the phone and upon hearing my name say, "Oh, you're the one buying those books with such taste and verve!" Of course, shortly after that they were overtaken by and interactions like that would never happen today.

The book is short, and the audio performance is amazing, with different actors representing each letter writer. Well worth your time.

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