Recommended Reading: To the Letter and Letters of Note

Dear Readers,

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.

To the LetterSimon 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.

Letters of NoteAnd 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.

11 thoughts on “Recommended Reading: To the Letter and Letters of Note

  1. What a good idea to pair these two books together as a gift (perhaps with a thoughtful letter too!). I love writing letters although so rarely do these days (I still write postcards though). I love receiving them even more. Wonderful review.

  2. What nice suggestions! I know it’s sort of a silly obsession, but I have worried about what is happening to the letter and even more, what will happen to historians in the future who will have to mine hard drives to look at people’s correspondence! I used to write letters to all my older relatives, but they have all passed away. However, just this summer another blogger and I decided to be pen pals. I can’t say that either of us have written any letters that will end up in a book, but we are at least writing them! 🙂

    BTW, I would love one of you and your son’s handmade cards, and I would love to get your address so I can send you a card, too, not unfortunately handmade.

  3. I love the idea of both of these books! I often feel sad about the hand-written letter falling by the wayside. And, I remember well the fun of getting letters in the mail. Even sending them is fun- I imagine where the letter is each day, anticipating the arrival and my friend finally getting it in her mailbox. It was while I was at university that e-mail started to take over. The first couple of years, I was still getting a lot of mail (going to check our mailboxes each day was a big event), but the last couple of years we started making more stops at the computer lab instead. I could always count on my grandmother to keep writing, though. Also, I have kept all my letters. Someday, it will be fun to read through them all! I kind of hope no one kept the ones I wrote, though. 🙂

  4. Thank you for kick-starting me on a letter I’ve been meaning to put on paper for a month. I also love doing holiday cards, but boxes of cards don’t really exist here. I may be motivated enough by this post to go get some crafting supplies this weekend and make my own.

    • Sadly, I am not, having just gotten here. Next year!

      And no, no boxes of cards — it’s easy to find single cards but for 2-5 euros apiece I cannot afford to send them to Everyone I Know. Christmas here is surprisingly subdued, though many German traditions are becoming widespread (like Christmas markets). Well, except for the food, which is a huge deal. It really drives home how much of our American holiday is derived from northern Europe.

  5. Pingback: The Rosemary and Reading Glasses Holiday Gift Guide (Because it was inevitable, wasn’t it?) | Rosemary and Reading Glasses

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