The Lost Art of Letter-Writing

or What I learned from reading Helene Hanff’s 84, Charring Cross Road

Meghan Hollis
Jun 3 · 7 min read
Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

Today I walked into my favorite independent bookstore downtown. I walked around browsing through the two floors of books, and a small volume caught my attention: 84, Charring Cross Road by Helene Hanff. I picked it up off of the shelf, and I read the blurb on the back cover. It says:

This charming classic, first published in 1970, brings together twenty years of correspondence between Helene Hanff, a freelance writer living in New York City, and a used-book dealer in London. Through the years, though never meeting and separated both geographically and culturally, they share a winsome, sentimental friendship based on their mutual love for books. Their relationship, captured so acutely in these letters, is one that will grab your heart and refuse to let it go.

I was hooked. I bought the book, brought it home, and immediately snuggled into my favorite spot for reading. I read the book cover to cover in one go on a hot, sunny Sunday afternoon.

This epistolary work highlights several themes through the correspondence between a sweet woman in New York and a used bookseller in London. Cultural differences emerge, but there is also an important lesson on kindness and selflessness. The importance of human connections emerges as the friendship develops between Miss Hanff, the workers at the bookstore, and even their family members and friends. The letters highlight how these human connections can develop through books and shared reading across continents and across centuries. Any reader will take away some important insights on travel, communication, and the impact of simple human connections.


On Culture

The book provides an interesting examination of cultural differences as exposed through letters between the American writer and the British bookshop employees and some of their family and friends. From differences in sports interests — the American brings up the Brooklyn Dodgers while the Brits discuss the Hotshots — to sharing recipes across the ocean, the book provides subtle insights into the differences in American and British culture.

When Miss Hanff starts to order the books, they send the bill in British currency. She has trouble with this, writing back:

“I don’t add too well in plain American. I haven’t a prayer of ever mastering bilingual arithmetic.”

— Helene Hanff

What is truly amazing about this book is how the writers of the letters share their cultures through subtle communications. It really highlights how our cultures and customs may differ, but our common humanity brings us together.


On Kindness

The theme of kindness runs throughout the letters. Although the letter writers largely never meet in person, there is a kindness and friendship that runs back and forth throughout. During the war, food and other items were rationed in Britain. Once Miss Hanff recognizes this, she starts sending packages to the bookstore with meat, eggs, and other food items that the workers would not otherwise have access to. The friendly exchange continues for nearly two decades with them exchanging occasional gifts long after the war has concluded. These gifts between people who have never met in person are the epitome of human generosity and kindness.

The ability to build a relationship based on kindness and generosity gives you hope. I am certainly inspired to practice small kindnesses with strangers. The friendship that develops across the ocean as a result of these letters, gifts, and the common love of reading is inspiring.


Human Connections

The book is filled with the development of human connections. What is absolutely amazing is that most of these people never actually meet. Their relationship is limited to the words on a page and a shared love of books and reading. At one point, Miss Hanff highlights how this connection between readers is carried on through the books themselves:

“I shall sprinkle pale pencil marks through it pointing out the best passages to some booklover yet unborn.”

— Helene Hanff

The connections continue through the books, through letters, and through a shared sense of human compassion that spans two continents. The importance of and power of human connection is apparent throughout the book.


Connections Through Books

The initial connection grows from a shared love of books. As the British bookstore staff send books to Miss Hanff, she remarks on the higher quality of the British books (compared to American books), and she highlights the beauty of the books:

“I just never saw a book so beautiful. I feel vaguely guilty about owning it. All that gleaming leather and gold stamping and beautiful type belongs in the pine-paneled library of an English country home; it wants to be read by the fire in a gentleman’s leather easy chair — not on a secondhand studio couch in a one-room hovel in a broken-down brownstone front.”

— Helene Hanff

This also highlights the way that Miss Hanff pictures Britain and British people. She has never visited the country, so her images of the British reader are most likely based on the books she has read. The connections that emerge based on the books are powerful.

Several years ago, my daughter bought a book at a used bookstore in central Illinois. She loves trying to find the oldest books she can, and she loves finding books that people have left things in. We have found bookmarks, notes, letters, envelopes, receipts, pictures, and other items in these books. We save them when we find them. This particular book highlights the ability of books to communicate across generations. When we got home and she opened the book, she got really excited. She showed it to me and to my dad. Inside there was an inscription from a military officer. It was a book of poetry, and it was dated in the mid-1800s. We looked this person up and discovered that this man was an officer during the Civil War fighting for the Union (North). He left notes in the margins in places. It was like having a conversation with a Civil War soldier over the literature.

She also highlights the power of a book’s presence. When she gets her copy of a book by De Toqueville, she comments on his views of his new residence.

“M. De Toqueville’s compliments and he begs to announce his safe arrival in America. He sits around looking smug because everything he said was true, especially about lawyers running the country.”

— Helene Hanff

Books are incredibly powerful objects. They give the author the gift of immortality and the reader the ability to travel through time and space.


Travel

Although the letter writers never get the opportunity to travel to see each other, they share their worlds and experiences with each other. Early on, Miss Hanff starts to talk about when she will travel to London:

“Please write and tell me about London. I live for the day when I step off the boat-train and feel its dirty sidewalks under my feet.”

— Helene Hanff

The book also highlights how we can use books to travel to distant lands, to different times, and to connect with other societies. There are constant references to tourists, and Miss Hanff shares something a man once told her:

“A newspaper man I know, who was stationed in London during the war, says tourists go to England with preconceived notions, so they always find exactly what they go looking for. I told him I’d go looking for the England of English literature, and he said: ‘Then it’s there.’ ”

— Helene Hanff

I wonder what Miss Hanff would have found if she had traveled to England. What would the England of English literature look like? This is something I intend to find out in my own travels in the near future.


Online Shopping, Email, Text Messaging, and Letter Writing

One of the more beautiful parts of this book emerges because of the time in which the letters were written. This was before the days of online shopping and the Internet. Miss Hanff is trying to find some out of print books, and she discovers this bookstore that specializes in rare, out of print, and used books. The bookstore is in London and she is in New York. She decides to write to the bookseller to see if they can find copies of some books that she is looking for. This sparks a decades long friendship.

This type of relationship would not emerge today. In a time of instant communication through email, text messaging and social media, we no longer have the opportunities that Miss Hanff had. I find this rather sad. The art of letter writing is dead.

When I finished the book and put it down, I found myself contemplating what it would look like if I started writing and posting a letter every day. Would people write back to me? Do kids still have penpals in school? Are we losing our opportunities to connect with others as a result of our fast paced, fast food, high tech existence?


Slowing Down and Living Deliberately

Ultimately, this book made me reflect on the need to slow down and live deliberately. I am thinking about what I need to do to foster the types of human connections that developed in the book. Will I meet people in my travels that I can stay in touch with through letters? Are people even willing to do that sort of thing today? The book made me want to take a breath and work harder on developing human connections, but the book also made me want to focus more on kindness and generosity in my life. I aim to look for opportunities to do both from now on.

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Meghan Hollis

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Meghan is a recovering academic and unemployed writer trying to make it without a “real job” (as her parents call it). She loves to travel and write about it.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +540K people. Follow to join our community.

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