84 Charing Cross Road84 Charing Cross Road
by Helene Hanff

My local branch library posted a link to an online book club.  When I followed the link, I discovered that the “Un-put-downables” were just about to spend a weekend reading this book.  Okay, they had me from the word go.  I can’t resist re-reading this old favorite.

My original copy of this book is inscribed — (yes, on the flyleaf!) — “Merry Christmas 1986 from Daddy”.  I still remember later on that Christmas Day, starting to dip into the book a little. Barely a handful of pages into it, I was suddenly laughing myself silly and saying — “Listen to this!” I read aloud the letter that begins “What kind of a black Protestant Bible is this?  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.”

By the time I stopped laughing, this book had me hooked, and I loved Helene Hanff.  Daddy and I ended up passing the volume back and forth, reading the whole thing aloud together over a couple of hours on Christmas evening.  I read Helene and he read Frank.  (Although I know Frank would actually have had an English accent, I still to this day hear him in my mind with Daddy’s American voice.)  We enjoyed this abridged version of the book so much that he bought me the full-length edition, then followed it up with Hanff’s other books Duchess of Bloomsbury Street and Underfoot in Show Business. I think of all the times we read these books aloud at the store in between working, tucking the book under the counter when things were busy, and sometimes having to explain to bemused customers why we were laughing uncontrollably.

I still love this book best of all her books. It’s a book about books, about people who love books, about what it’s like to live with books. Why do we like to read? What does it do for us? What do we want it to do for us? How does it connect us across space and time to other readers, people who lived long ago in other times, people alive right now in other places. What is it like to discover that we can suddenly yell “Comrade!” to a fellow creature, thanks to a connection made through a book?

This book makes me yell “Comrade!” every time I read it. This time, adding my reflections on the book to the others on the book club blog, I met a lot of total strangers who were also yelling “Comrade!” — and somehow that made us all into comrades together.