By CARMELA CIURARU
TO THE LETTER
A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing
By Simon Garfield
Illustrated. 464 pp. Gotham Books. $27.50.
Once there were letters: handwritten, typewritten, carefully crafted, dashed off, profound or mundane, tinged with expectancy. Correspondence required waiting. “I need you more and more, and the great world grows wider, and dear ones fewer and fewer, every day that you stay away,” Emily Dickinson wrote to her future sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert, in 1852. Were they alive today, would Dickinson and Gilbert merely G-chat?
Simon Garfield might think so. His latest book, “To the Letter,” is a nostalgic and fretful look at the “lost art” of letter writing. “A world without letters would surely be a world without oxygen,” he declares, noting that his book confronts this possibility. It’s tempting to laugh nervously and say, “Why so ominous?” But then again, OMG, maybe he’s got a point. A certain artfulness has surely been lost as emoticons and Snapchats take over as modes of expression.
For the most part, Garfield — a British journalist whose previous books include studies of fonts and mapmaking — steers clear of contrasting the virtues of pen and paper with the sins of email and text messages. But sometimes he can’t help himself. He writes, for instance, that emails are “a poke,” and letters “a caress.” A strange analogy, to be sure, and anyone who has agonized over a lengthy, emotional email to a friend, lover or family member might disagree.
He also claims that the last letter “will appear in our lifetime,” and that we will not notice the passing of this final missive until it’s too late — “like the last hair to whiten, or the last lovemaking.” Such weird rhetorical turns are, thankfully, few and far between.
Garfield’s book is stuffed with marvelous anecdotes, fascinating historical tidbits and excerpts from epistolary masters both ancient (Cicero, Seneca) and modern (Woolf, Hemingway). By the late 19th century, the “letter-writing manual” had itself become a thriving literary genre. Lewis Carroll contributed some prescriptive advice in the booklet “Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter-Writing”: “If your correspondent makes a severe remark, either ignore it or soften your response; if your friend is friendly, make your reply ever friendlier.”
It’s wonderful to learn about the iPads of ancient Rome — thin wooden writing tablets sliced from alder, birch and oak — and to stumble on this delightful closing phrase of a letter dating to the third century A.D.: “Remember my pigeons.” Or to encounter an exasperated Erasmus, chiding his brother for not having written back: “I believe it would be easier to get blood from a stone than coax a letter out of you!”
The letters of Marcus Aurelius reveal not a would-be Roman emperor but a lovesick youth pining for his teacher. “I am dying so for love of you,” Aurelius writes, to which his tutor replies, “You have made me dazed and thunderstruck by your burning love.”
Throughout, Garfield uncovers startling examples of lust (“I think of your breasts more than is good for me,” a British soldier writes to his sweetheart), intimacy and suffering. Some of the most poignant letters expose the private anguish of writers and poets. The correspondence between Leonard Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, in the aftermath of Virginia Woolf’s suicide, is devastating for what cannot be expressed.
Despite Garfield’s alarmist stance, it seems premature to assume that letters will go the way of the woolly mammoth. After all, the death knell has been sounded since at least the invention of the telephone. In any case, his 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.”
One of the letter’s strongest defenses comes from Katherine Mansfield, who in a tender note to a friend conveys beautifully, and succinctly, what the form at its best can achieve. “This is not a letter,” she writes, “but my arms around you for a brief moment.”
Carmela Ciuraru is the author of “Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms.”