[Book Review] 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
This is a book of letters, not love letters, but communications between a customer and an “antiquarian” bookseller across the Atlantic. It started with formal addresses - Gentlemen and Dear Madam, lasted from 1949 to 1969 for 20 years, and ended one addressing Dear Miss. While reading those letters, it was like a voyage through time. Things changed a lot in 20 years. Food shortage in Britain, George VI the King, the coronation of Elizabeth II the Queen, and also the friendship between FPD and the author. The letters are pleasant to read, the British rhetoric and often rigorously humorous way of writing, and in contrast the vibrant and casual words from the author on the other side of the ocean mingles together. For example,
“SLOTH, i could ROT here before you'd send me anything to read…what do you do with yourself all day, sit in the back of the office store and read? Why don't you try selling a book to somebody? MISS Hanf to you(I'm helene only to my FRIENDS)”
“Dear Helene, I quite agree it is the time we dropped the “Miss” when writing to you. I am not really so stand-offish as you may have been lead to believe, but as copies of letters I have written to you go into the office files the formal address seemed more appropriate. ”
I have a peculiar hobby of reading, published of course, diaries or letters of others. It is like listening to a mind with flesh and blood narrate what had happened. While listening, those historical events faded into the background including whatever happened elsewhere at the same period, war between countries, cities besieged, cities rebuilt. Only two souls exist. You know that this is time and this is life.
When I was in England, I used to go to a local market on Saturdays and sieved through a second-hand book stall, hunting for lost treasures. My exploration ended in quite a few poetry collections and prose, some with uncut leaves and some with rough edges, nice clean copies from the beginning of 20th century. A book is a collection of meaningful words, if it is displayed on a digital reader. A book is never a collection of words, if it is passed down generation by generation and time erodes the colour of the pages, like a vintage wine, reaching us across time and space.
We now live in a “instant” world with unprecedentedly convenient interconnections, we also live in an age of risk management, which mostly attempts to avoid uncertainty or the role of chance, thus missing the most beautiful thing in life as it says in the book “the unbearable lightness of being”. The following picture was taken by a friend of mine early this year. The bookshop is now no where to be seen at 84 Charing Cross Road, leaving this busy yet void space for us to imagine.