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.

“a thread of her devising”

Charlotte’s Web may be the book I’m most looking forward to reading with my small son. I remember my mother reading it to me, and in particular the calm, gracious way she delivered Charlotte’s classic “Salutations.”

[Actually, in many ways, my mother reminds me of Charlotte: inventive and resourceful, especially when protecting the people she loves; ready to sacrifice for her children; and possessed of a remarkable facility with language.]

E.B. White, who wrote Charlotte’s Web, and Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan, is also the White in Strunk & White, whose Elements of Style is a perennial classic, the pronouncements of which I fear my writing never lives up to.

It should come as no surprise, then, that White is gifted writer in many genres. “Once More to the Lake” is a particular favorite of mine, an essay that neatly encapsulates the tension between childhood and adulthood, memory and the present. His letters are kind and witty (read a wonderful example at Letters of Note), and I’d like to find a volume of them the next time I’m haunting a used bookstore.

A used bookstore is where I found a paperback edition (1983, I believe) of Poems and Sketches of E.B. White. Someone wrote a lovely inscription on the title page that refers to White’s death in 1985:

To dear B–,

In memory of the era that ended during our ’85 visit. How sad- but he will live in our memories & his words will continue to entertain and bind us!

With much love,  K, [unclear name here] & S*

It’s a delightful book; open to any page and there’s something to amuse or interest. This week I’l be memorizing the poem “Natural History,” addressed to White’s wife, Katharine. It’s a short, delicate poem in which the speaker compares himself to a spider, attached to the point of his leaving (his wife) by a silken strand, to aid in his returning. If I were to teach the poem, it would make a lovely pairing with Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.”

*I’ve redacted the names of the recipient and the gift-givers to protect their privacy, whomever they may be.