Saturday, September 19, 2009

Tiny but mighty

The Book: 84 Charing Cross Road
The Writer: Helene Hanff
The Dealio: Say you are a dedicated letter writer. Or maybe you just like getting letters. Or, even that you view hand-written correspondence with the intellectual curiosity of a true science, spotting the Rosetta Stone (not sure what it is, but...intrigued). Well, then 84 Charing Cross Road is just the ticket for you. This tiny (112 pages) book starts out slowly, subtly enough: a NY actress with a passion for the written word, spies an ad in a magazine for 'gently used books for sale' via mail-order. In the grip of nostalgia for those days, long gone, of 'sending away' for things, I moved quickly through the early days of the relationship between Helene and the mysterious 'FPD' of Marks and Co in London. Helene casts wide her net of requests; he, silently, courteously and efficiently (for the most part), responds by locating, then wrapping and sending the books of her dreams. Usually. She is bold, dashing and slashing with powerful word and pen. He is shy, unassuming and scholarly, taking his task- over the course of 20 + years- of tracking down and supplying the varied written, bound words as faithfully and obsessively as a code-breaker on the trail of the elusive Enigma. Through their correspondence, we learn, not only about books and authors, but about the world post World War II, issues of the day, personal highs and lows, and, most importantly, about humor and the many faces of kindness and caring, of becoming involved and getting exercised over the everyday trials and triumphs of people who will probably never meet. what if we don't ever meet the person on the other end of the paper trail? The delight is in the evolving nature of a very unique friendship. That, yeah, plus the joys of writing-and receiving- an actual letter we can take out, read, relive and take comfort from (which).
The Grading Session: 5+ stars out of 5 (there is a sequel 'The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, if you want to know what happened next). The plus is for the fact that this is non-fiction, and tells an engrossing tale in such a economic expenditure of pages. A lovely movie was made from this book in 2002, starring Ann Bancroft as Helene and Antony Hopkins as Frank Doel. Indulge, please. Then, discuss among yourselves. I'll wait.
Lessons Learned: While it is gratifying to get e mails from those we long to hear from, there is a certain clandestine thrill about marching back from the letter box with an actual communique in your hands. And, as a compulsive re-reader, I never under-estimate the pleasure of a return visit to the same. I no longer am the letter writer I once was (and do confess to feeling like the last, surviving practitioner of that lost art), I am resolved to get back into the wonderful, and personal art of creative correspondence.

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