Thursday, September 29, 2011

Wanting: Books about Writing Letters

Are there people who don't like handwritten letters, at least in theory? I can't imagine it, but there are people who like Kim Kardashian enough to make her popular so it takes all kinds I guess. (Terrifying side note: my dad knows who Kim Kardashian is and can identify her by sight without prompting.)

I certainly like sending and receiving paper mail. In fact, this summer I joined the Letter Writers Alliance and am quite committed to doing my part to keep the snail-mail-love flowing. I'm toying with the idea of requesting real mail for my birthday in December, but that kind of solicitation is usually reserved to children with cancer and third grade classrooms, so I'm not sure. Anyhow, here are some mail-themed books I've had my eye on lately.

The Art of the Personal Letter, by Margaret Shepherd.
I have Shepherd's The Art of the Handwritten Note, and it's fantastic, so even if this one is a retread I'd still love it. The writing and advice in Handwritten Note are funny and lively and completely practical. For example: "Do not write with a pencil or use blue-lined school paper, especially not notebook paper with holes punched in it. That's like going out dressed only in your underpants." Point taken.

For the Love of Writing Letters, by Samara O'Shea.
I might just want this for the cover design (yum). But the blurb promises funny personal stories with an emphasis on "letter writing in the 21st century" so it sounds promising even beyond that.

Script & Scribble, by Kitty Burns Florey.
This one purports to be both a history of handwriting (or I should say, a history of the social value of handwriting) and a case for why handwriting still matters. Both of those elements could end up being treated shallowly and polemically and thus make the whole book annoying, but it's an interesting enough subject that I'd be willing to give it a try. Fact: I'm slightly proud of my handwriting although it's objectively terrible. This is partly due to my inability to spell.

Good Mail Day, by Jennie Henchcliff.
Ah, mail art. The internet is home to (photos of) many impressive examples of the form, and it's easy to imagine how cool it would be to see such things in your mailbox. That said, it tends toward the cluttery, which is really not my thing and would annoy me if I were a postal worker. Plus I have zero artistic talent, and, to coin a phrase, if you don't send mail art you really have no business receiving it. So this book seems like a good way to sort of admire from a distance, and maybe pick up a few tips to help jazz up your (my) sad vanilla envelopes.

Epistolatory Practices: Letter Writing in America before Telecommunications, by William Merrill Decker.
Posting It: The Victorian Revolution in Letter Writing, by Catherine J. Golden.
Bam! A transatlantic historical double-whammy! Because at some point you have to stop generalizing about "how it used to be" and find out something concrete. Note that both of these were published by academic presses, which is just how I likes it.

In Tearing Haste: Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor
Finally, some real letters. What could be better or more inspiring than reading a real correspondence between interesting people? There are plenty of published collections of letters out there but this one looks especially promising to me.

 And that is my imaginary shelf of books about letters and letter-writing. Any suggestions?


  1. I love both writing and receiving letters, and reading books of letters between interesting people, or just every letter, more or less, written by one interesting person. So, I have to recommend John Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, and the one letters book I am dying to read is letters between Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. So yes. Love this post basically :) Also, if you ever need to write a letter to a random anonymous someone, I'm your girl! Hehe

  2. The book of letters between Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, published last year in hardcover, is a very interesting collection, indeed. It's called As Always, Julia.

  3. You should write to Laura. She lives in England and actually likes Americans. Amazing.

  4. Excellent suggestions, ladies!

    I am happy to send and receive letters from anyone who is comfortable with corresponding with Internet People! Example: I participated in a Christmas gift exchange with friends from a message board for several years in high school. Good times. My email address for Internet People is: blackmarketlembas at yahoo. No points for guessing the theme of that message board from high school days of yore.

  5. ONE MILLION DOLLARS says I know the answer.