Sunday, April 18, 2010

84 Charing Cross Road

Marks & Co., 84 Charing Cross Road, London

Yesterday, I watched the movie 84 Charing Cross Road with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins from 1987. After watching the movie, I sat down and read the charming little book of letters that the movie is based on.

Helene Hanff was a charming eccentric who loved to read. 84 Charing Cross Road is her correspondence beginning in 1949 and ending in 1969 with some people who work in a little bookstore located at 84 Charing Cross Road in London.

Helene Hanff

In this age of email and text messaging, letter writing is a lost art. Apparently, so is reading well. Very few people then did the kind of reading that Helene Hanff did, and I suspect that there are even fewer today in the "age of information." (How can we live in an "information age" yet be more ignorant and illiterate than ever before?).

Ms. Hanff's letters were primarily answered by Frank Doel, an employee of the bookstore, and ended in 1969 after Mr. Doel's sudden death. There are also letters in the book from other people employed by the bookstore as well as Mr. Doel's wife and neighbor.

In this letter, dated November 18, 1949, which I find particularly amusing, Ms. Hanff has ordered a latin bible. She is expecting a copy of the Vulgate. That is not what she got:


Kindly inform the Church of England they have loused up the most beautiful prose ever written, whoever told them to tinker with the Vulgate Latin? They'll burn for it, you mark my words.

It's nothing to me, I'm Jewish myself. But I have a Catholic sister-in-law, a Methodist sister-in-law, a whole raft of Presbyterian cousins (through my Great-Uncle Abraham who converted) and an aunt who's a Christian Science healer, and I like to think none of them would countenance this Anglican Latin Bible if they knew it existed. (As it happens, they don't know Latin existed).

Well, the hell with it. I've been using my Latin teacher's Vulgate, what I imagine I'll do is just not give it back till you find me one of my own.

Helene Hanff in later years.

Or this, dated "sunday night and a hell of a way to start 1960". Helene tells Frank Doel that a friend has given her a Modern Library edition of the complete poems of John Donne and William Blake.

"Will you please tell me what those two boys have in common?-except they were both English and they both Wrote? I tried reading the Introduction figuring that might explain it. The Introduction is in four parts. Parts I and II include a Professor's life of Donne mit-illustrations-from-the-authors-works-also-criticism. Part III begins-and God knows I quote:

"When, as a little boy, William Blake saw the prophet Ezekiel under a tree amid a summer field, he was soundly trounced by his mother."

I'm with his mother. I mean, the back of the Lord God or the face of the Virgin Mary, all right - but why the hell would anybody want to see the prophet Ezekiel?"

Anyone who hasn't read this charming little book, or seen the movie, needs to go out and get both right now. Don't wait.


  1. What a treat to see this reference to _84 Charing Cross Road_, a book I read many years ago. I agree that we don't read anymore. I'm a librarian whose face is constantly being shoved into "information," and get mighty tired of it at times. I became a librarian for old-fashioned reasons--the Truth. When I saw the title of your blog, I was instantly drawn to it because I knew it had to be a reference to my beloved Walker Percy. He was my final push into the Church 15 years ago.

  2. Thanks Donna! As a confirmed bibliophile I just loved Helene Hanff and her bookstore friends. It seems to me that this culture has a lot of "information" and very little Truth. How many poor souls out there are "Lost in the Cosmos?"

  3. BC, I hate to think of the poor souls "Lost in the Cosmos." I may be one of them. As a university librarian, I have to move along with the direction of technological advance, and so I do. Librarianship is quickly shifting its focus from content to the medium, I'm afraid. With the bedrock of social construction of reality, it seems to me that education is imploding. I would love to see libraries become centers in which forums, academic discussion, book talks, etc. are held--rather old timey. The search for Truth is such a naive, quaint endeavor these days.