To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing

To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing

by Simon Garfield

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The New York Times bestselling author of Just My Type and On the Map offers an ode to letter writing and its possible salvation in the digital age.

Few things are as exciting—and potentially life-changing—as discovering an old letter. And while etiquette books still extol the practice, letter writing seems to be…  See more details below


The New York Times bestselling author of Just My Type and On the Map offers an ode to letter writing and its possible salvation in the digital age.

Few things are as exciting—and potentially life-changing—as discovering an old letter. And while etiquette books still extol the practice, letter writing seems to be disappearing amid a flurry of e-mails, texting, and tweeting. The recent decline in letter writing marks a cultural shift so vast that in the future historians may divide time not between BC and AD but between the eras when people wrote letters and when they did not. So New York Times bestselling author Simon Garfield asks: Can anything be done to revive a practice that has dictated and tracked the progress of civilization for more than five hundred years?

In To the Letter, Garfield traces the fascinating history of letter writing from the love letter and the business letter to the chain letter and the letter of recommendation. He provides a tender critique of early letter-writing manuals and analyzes celebrated correspondence from Erasmus to Princess Diana. He also considers the role that letters have played as a literary device from Shakespeare to the epistolary novel, all the rage in the eighteenth century and alive and well today with bestsellers like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. At a time when the decline of letter writing appears to be irreversible, Garfield is the perfect candidate to inspire bibliophiles to put pen to paper and create “a form of expression, emotion, and tactile delight we may clasp to our heart.”

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Carmela Ciuraru
Garfield's book is stuffed with marvelous anecdotes, fascinating historical tidbits and excerpts from epistolary masters both ancient (Cicero, Seneca) and modern (Woolf, Hemingway)…Throughout, Garfield uncovers startling examples of lust…intimacy and suffering…[Garfield's] epistolary ardor proves infectious, as he reminds us of the pleasures of composing letters without password protection or "send" buttons, those secured in dusty bureaus rather than "in the cloud."
Library Journal
UK author Garfield (Just My Type) here pens an ode to a dying art, that of the handwritten letter. Having previously explored stamp collecting, maps, typography, and even the color mauve, he again crafts meticulous literary nonfiction that displays great zeal for an arguably obscure topic. His 15 chapters take readers from ancient Rome to the days of Henry VIII, from Jane Austen to Sylvia Plath and, in the final chapter, to the origins of our digital substitute for letter writing, email. Garfield includes numerous letters in their entirety. Those between a World War II-era couple particularly add interest and spice to the narrative. Readers should note that, in keeping with the theme, this is not a short read: the author takes a leisurely approach to his chronology of letters and their writers. Where other titles on this topic tend to focus on a certain subject (e.g., war letters, love letters) or a sole pair of correspondents, Garfield's book is a celebration of the entire genre, whose decline will be seen by readers as a true loss. VERDICT A solid choice for fans of microhistories, paper trails, or epistolary works. [Prepub Alert, 6/15/13]—Stacey Rae Brownlie, Harrisburg Area Community Coll. Lib., Lancaster, PA
Kirkus Reviews
A tribute to writing personal letters, courtesy of the widely curious Garfield (On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks, 2012, etc.). The author asks, "What else could bring back a world and an individual's role within it so directly, so intensely, so plainly and so irresistibly? Only letters." Garfield seeks to show readers the significance of this lost art. When there was conscious effort made to get things right the first time--especially with those prepaid airmail fold-ups--both the sender and the recipient received ample rewards (certainly more than through email). Throughout history, there have been countless exemplary letter writers, and Garfield covers much ground, from Roman centurions in B.C. Britain to Charles Schultz and Charlie Brown. All the while, the author maintains his sense of storytelling wonder, a diverting patter that allows the pages to slip past even as he examines how letters reveal motivation, deepen understanding, give evidence, change lives and rewrite history. The letters on display are as varied as a patchwork quilt--Aristotle, Seneca, Cicero, Erasmus ("Have you so completely rid yourself of all brotherly feeling, or has all thought of your Erasmus wholly fled your heart?"), Emily Dickinson (in her letter to literary critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson, she writes, "You speak of Mr. Whitman. I never read his book, but was told that it was disgraceful"), Keats, Kerouac, Heloise and Abelard, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin--but Garfield draws out their commonality and continuity. He also provides short detours along the way, introducing the postal system, stamps, drop boxes and that saddest of destinations, the dead-letter office. Katherine Mansfield once wrote to a friend, "This is not a letter but my arms around you for a brief moment." Garfield provides a fond, lovely reflection on the essence of that sentiment.

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Read an Excerpt

From Chapter 15: Inbox

In June 2004, 190 people replied to a survey conducted by the Sussex-based Mass Observation Project on the subject of letters and emails. It seemed like a good time to take stock: email and personal computers were now a regular part of our lives. The respondents reported writing fewer letters, and regarded email as useful but limited: they would not trust their intimate thoughts to email, and they often printed them out, uncertain whether they would still be on their computers in the morning.

There was still a fondness for tradition: of the 190 people who replied to the survey, 82 per cent sent in their written answers by post.*

But the behavioural details of the survey provide a valuable anecdotal glimpse into the attitudes of general users at a time when email was becoming part of the fabric of our lives. Nine years since the survey, the replies seem both quaint and touching, but they reveal more than mere nostalgia; the impact of receiving hand-delivered mail clearly extends beyond words on a page.

‘I can remember receiving my first mail as a young girl and the thrill it gave me,’ wrote a 68-year-old woman from Surrey. ‘Sometimes I would send off for something, like a sample of face cream or a film star’s picture.’ Her first pen pal was an American girl from Pikeville, Kentucky, who sent her Juicy Fruit chewing gum and a subscription to a girl-scouting magazine. Later she wrote to a Swedish boy in Landskrona and a Turkish naval cadet.

An 83-year-old woman from Belfast remembered wistful letters during the war. ‘One used to put SWALK on the back of the envelope [sealed with a loving kiss] but my mother and father did not quite approve.’*

A woman from Blackpool received four round-robins every Christmas, ‘mostly about people we don’t know or care about . . . No-one who sends them seems to have children or grand-children who are not brilliant. The minutiae they go into (We rise at 8am with the alarm and I bring tea in bed to F) is amazing. It’s especially difficult when someone you don’t remember or may not even have known is reported dead.’

A 45-year-old man from Gloucester wrote that ‘real letters are quite rare and are usually much appreciated. They do make you feel that someone cares about you.

I especially appreciate the rare letter I receive with beautiful handwriting on it. I do have one friend with lovely writing. It seems a shame to open the envelope, and she doesn’t write at all often.

Not so long ago her much-loved husband died very suddenly aged 60, and she

sold their house and moved. When she was clearing the cellar, the last cupboard

in the farthest corner buried behind all sorts of stuff was found to contain both side of an extremely lurid, passionate (and current) correspondence between her deceased husband and a Russian woman whom he was having a very steamy affair with and of which she was entirely ignorant. He had repeatedly promised to leave his empty marriage of 33 years for her (my friend loved her husband dearly and had thought the marriage, sex and all, to be going really well). The contents of all her husband’s meticulously copied love letters were appallingly wounding to her as indeed was the revealed fact of his unfaithfulness, just when she could no longer tackle him about it. Just when she thought things couldn’t get any worse.’

Reprinted by arrangement with GOTHAM BOOKS, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © SIMON GARFIELD, 2013.

* In 2013, email responses had increased to 45 per cent.

* The origin of SWALK is uncertain, but the common wisdom attributes it to

American soldiers in the Second World War. There are others, with varying geography

and spelling:

NORWICH – Nickers Off Ready When I Come Home

ITALY: I Trust And Love You

FRANCE: Friendship Remains And Never Can End

BURMA: Be Undressed Ready My Angel

MALAYA – My Ardent Lips Await Your Arrival

CHINA – Come Home I’m Naked Already

VENICE – Very Excited Now I Caress Everywhere

EGYPT – Eager to Grab Your Pretty Tits

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"Stuffed with marvelous anecdotes, fascinating historical tidbits and excerpts...[Garfield’s] epistolary ardor proves infectious."
The New York Times Book Review 
“Thoroughly captivating…Garfield shows us the poetic nature of the written word. . . . An overdue homage to something we once took for granted but really was an art.”
The Tampa Tribune

"A wonderfully elegant history."

"Garfield is a best-selling writer of irresistible enthusiasm….[His] robust and propulsive engagement with letters as an essential embodiment of the human spirit and a driving cultural force makes for exciting reading and thoughtful speculation about the future of scholarship and communication."

"This endlessly informative book from one of Britain's best non-fiction writers provides a heartfelt reminder of just how much we'd lose... the book serves up any number of vivid examples from people famous and unknown."
Reader’s Digest

"He offers hope for the letter as a form of writing – though it is not his theme – because he makes clear that people’s instinct to share, discuss, and transmit their deepest, most strongly held feelings survives and adapts, even as technology changes."
Financial Times

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