I trust you will allow me the informality of beginning a letter with your given name, that you will forgive me for requesting a copy of your previous book (“On the Map”) and never managing to write a review. Perhaps in another time, I would have written this letter on paper with a proper pen instead of choosing the more convenient and altogether phony letter-as-blog-post convention in place of the real thing.
Mostly, I wanted to thank you for reminding me of the special quality of a handwritten letter written, and the even more special quality of a handwritten letter received. It’s been a while.
In your most recent book (“To the Letter”), you choose the historical approach. I loved the opening story about items related to classic magic and magicians, and your interest not in the old mechanical tricks, but in the letters that revealed personality and secrets instead. I’m glad you won what you wanted at the auction.
You and I are wired differently, and I suppose that’s the reason I enjoy reading what you write. Your love of ephemeral history makes me want to spend a lazy weekend afternoon wandering London’s small museums and listening to your stories about Virginia Woolf and Henry VIII, then spending another wandering around Massachusetts to dig deeper into the stories you’ve told about Emily Dickinson and Jack Kerouac and their letters. And if your time permitted, maybe we’d wander over to Sagamore Hill to tour Teddy Roosevelt’s house and explore his letters as well. If we could time travel—and certainly, you’ve come as close as any author—I think I’d choose to wait outside of Oscar Wilde’s apartment waiting for him to toss a letter down to the street so that as passer-by might toss it into a letter box.
I don’t suppose I would have written quite the same book you’ve written. Mine would probably be more personal, less historical, more social, less of a museum of stories about letters and letter-writers. And, as you mention early on, email has obliterated the art, form and function of writing letters, and there’s no point in fighting that losing battle.
Perhaps, a contrary view. Letters and emails are quite different from one another. The convenience, speed, distribution and brevity of emails provide powerful reasons why they’ve won out. Letters recall another time, and it’s worth a moment to consider their unique character.
For one thing, a well-written personal letter is, of course, written in one’s own hand. As children, we devoted hours to the now forgotten term, penmanship. Excellence in cursive writing was to be admired, shown to the class as exemplar of superior art, craft and communication. As a child, an exercise in good penmanship was a true workout: intolerant of error because ink offers no delete key, no cut or paste function. As an adult, good penmanship was, and maybe still is, a reflection of good breeding, and, perhaps, an elegance of thought.
Time was spent thinking before writing. A letter was something to be composed. Cheerful, direct, succinct, emotional, candid, personal—these were among the choices, the decisions to be made before placing pen to paper and carefully writing even a single word.
Long letters were neither unusual nor undesirable. Earlier this month, I found a box of old letters in my basement. The long ones were among the most precious, especially those written by loved ones long gone. Here was a piece of their lives, offered directly to me, written in their own hand, on paper they themselves touched, placing in an envelope, posted when they could find the time. In short, the correspondent made a special effort to communicate with me: mother to son, girlfriend to boyfriend, and sometimes, young sister to older brother. Some letters, still in their envelopes, included pictures, or, sometimes, original drawings, and maybe, some doodles in the borders. Most were written a long time ago, and forgotten in a old box in a musty basement, but they surface from time to time, and when they do, I’m happy. I wish I had more of them. Apparently, I wrote a fair number of letters during my days as a college student (bored in anonymous lecture halls, I wrote letters to friends in other schools, and had my fun with silly stories along the way), and later, mostly on Tuesdays when it was my turn to sit at the receptionist’s desk when she was at lunch (which explains why my Tuesday letters were, mostly, written on steno paper). During one summer, when long-distance telephone calls were too expensive to be either long or frequent, my friend Casey and I plotted out an extensive strategy by exchanging letters; he was 400 miles away, and there was no other way to communicate with one another.
Simon, I know that this personal ephemera is not likely to capture the attention of a large audience. I suppose that’s why I’m writing this in a letter, and why you chose not to write about this in a book that provides you and your publisher with funds from the marketplace.
Then again, I suspect this is precisely why you wrote “To the Letter”—to cause at least a few of us to consider, as you mention in your subtitle, “A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing.” And, once again, I offer a personal aside. I would have added a few words to your subtitle: “and Reading Those Letters” or some such.
The day is ending. We’ve just received a text message from friends who are ready for dinner. I’m campaigning for Peruvian food, but I suspect it will be Thai-Laotian again. If we corresponded regularly, I might clip a recipe to our next correspondence, and you might respond with a take out menu from your favorite Pakistani restaurant. I suspect we won’t. We don’t know one another, so we must maintain our internet anonymity. Besides, my email inbox contains several thousand unopened emails and yours probably contains thrice as many. But it has been fun to read what you’ve written, and to think about writing and reading letters during a cold afternoon. Perhaps, when the time is right, we will correspond, and if the time is ideal, we will do so on paper, pen in hand with the most colorful postage stamps we can find to amuse one another as we open our respective envelopes.
P.S. Writing a letter, the inclusion of links felt disruptive, so I suggest lurkers visit your website to learn more. That way, they can see both the UK and US book covers in nifty animation (I prefer the UK version, as I often do).
P.P.S. I shall not apologize for writing a letter that runs over a thousand words. (If this a blog post, that would be unacceptably long.)