The Passion for literature and the romance of letters

My friend Pamela gave me a great gift…a very special book that came all the way from Paris’ famous Shakespeare and Company bookshop. A little water damage makes this book even more of a treasure because it’s a paperback that has been loved. The book, 84, Charing Cross Road is easily on my top books ever read list! It’s real people writing letters to each other and developing a beautiful friendship all the way across the big blue ocean…it’s so romantic!

I’ve always believed in the power of correspondence and I very much enjoy reading books that are a series of letters. Recently I’ve read three books that are a series of beautiful letters: 84, Charing Cross Road, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and As Always, Julia. Each book begins the same way…the characters all receive a letter from a stranger and their correspondence leads to a lasting and true friendship. It is possible to form lasting and deep relationships with people that we have never physically met.

84, Charing Cross Road is a charming book about an outspoken New York writer (Helene Hanff) whose touching correspondence with antiquarian booksellers in London (especially with Frank Doel) develops such a mutually fostering friendship that they become an extended family. Exchanges between Helene Hanff and the Marks & Co. booksellers at 84 Charing Cross Road are all letters and books.

I found the book to be romantic in the sense that their fondness for each other expanded over time, the romance of the cities New York and London are vividly described, the yarn of letters and books flying or sailing across the sea, and there is also a mystery associated with them not officially meeting that I find romantic.

There could have been a potential for romance between Frank Doel and Helene Hanff but I found them to truly care for each other as friends first. There is an unspoken love for each other without ever seeing each other. It’s a real-life love story.

When reading the private letters of Helene and Frank, the reader gets a taste of cultural and social differences that were commonplace in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s in London and New York.

Their correspondence went on from 1949 to 1969. Throughout twenty years they exchanged Christmas gifts, news of families and careers. There was always an intention for them to meet but something came in the way every time it almost happened.

A lesson to this is that if there’s something you really want to do, do it when you have the chance or you might miss a grand opportunity.

Through Hanff’s book, the reader is reintroduced to all sorts of old classics with her passion for literature and made to feel inspired not only to write a letter to a friend, but to read a book with either a cup of tea (like Frank did in London) or a cigarette and martini (like Helene did in New York).

There was a lovely movie starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins that followed the book beautifully. Anne Bancroft is saucy and spirited just like I imagined Helene Hanff to be.

Hanff’s personality is humorous, demanding, witty and sarcastic whereas, Doel is the classic English gentleman. Hanff playfully begins one letter in all caps, “SLOTH: I could ROT over here before you’d send me anything to read.” Toward the end of their correspondence Hanff writes, “Frankie, you’re the only soul alive who understands me.”

If you’re lucky enough to find an edition of 84, Charing Cross Road that comes with the companion book The Duchess of Bloomsbury, you will love reading them back to back.

Another book I recently enjoyed that is also a series of letters and similar and many ways to 84, Charing Cross Road was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Set in post WWII England, it is based around Juliet Ashton, a writer with sharp wit, and a love of books. When Juliet receives a letter from a stranger in Guernsey, a correspondence begins with not just one, but many Guernsey islanders.

One of my favorite quotes from The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society that I completely resonate with is, “That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive—all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.”

One last book recommendation that is a series of letters and friendship is As Always, Julia. Julia Child and Avis DeVoto based their friendship on the art of letter writing before they ever met.  I previously wrote about it here

All three books are written with warmth and humor. They have in common that they each find inspiration in the letters to each other, not just for their work, but inspiration for their life.

Through the three books the reader will get a sense of how the power of books and letters sustain readers in good times and in bad. The books celebrate letters in the best possible way. I always look forward to seeing what the closing will be. My favorite closing came from Julia Child’s best friend Avis: Lashings of love. Who doesn’t enjoy reading about collecting books and the pleasures of reading?

I wish for you that you have time to read these books but also find time to write to your friends…do it now, don’t wait! 

As for Pamela’s book, it’s meant to be shared with someone else now. I think I’ll send it by mail…with a letter.

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