I have mail on my mind. I’ve been—with the help and crayon skills of a small boy of my acquaintance—putting together the annual batch of Christmas/Hanukkah/Solstice/Festivus cards (if you’d like one, blog friends, do get in touch) and reflecting on the very great pleasure a handwritten note can elicit.
Earlier this week, I received an unexpected package in the mail—a note and two extraordinarily thoughtful gifts from a friend who visited this summer. This friend (who is a very private person, and who I’ll call L) happens to be one of the most wonderful writers I know; she thinks deeply and expresses herself clearly, and I’m fairly sure that if she had been born 200-odd years ago, she would have been a real-life Jane Austen heroine.
L writes gorgeous letters via email, but I am afraid that I have been a terrible correspondent, falling off the epistolary train, so to speak. Fortuitously, as this lovely gift arrived, I was reading a book that suggested to me a way to catch the train again: writing letters.
Simon Garfield’s To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing* is one of the most charming books I’ve read in years. Part popular history, part love letter to letters themselves, it’s an entertaining, lively read that will have you reaching for pen and paper by page ten.
Mr. Garfield traces the history of the letter, letter-writing advice, and postal services in general, from the Romans to the twenty-first century, pausing over figures like Madame de Sévigné, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Erasmus, and Ted Hughes. Examples and illustrations are abundant, but perhaps the crowning gem of the book is the correspondence between Chris and Bessie, two English friends (and also postal workers) who fall in love by post during World War II. Mr. Garfield places a selection of these letters between his longer chapters, approximating the delay that’s part and parcel of letter writing. (I should note that for most of the book the correspondence is one-sided; Chris felt the need to burn Bessie’s letters when he moved billets.)
I highly recommend To the Letter, especially for anyone (ahem) who reads mostly fiction, but would like to read more nonfiction.
And since ’tis the season, friends, I’d also recommend To the Letter as a gift, especially if you pair it with Letters of Note (which I received as a birthday present from my husband—thanks, dear!), a gorgeous, coffee-table kind of book you’ll actually read. Shaun Usher, who runs the website Letters of Note (a Rosemary & Reading Glasses favorite) collects letters old and new, famous and not, and includes photocopies (and transcriptions, if needed) of the missives. It’s glorious.
Anyway, I’ve decided to join the movement to keep letters alive (to a particular uncle: I’m late to the party, I know!)—perhaps you’re already on board? Let me know!
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.