The Reading Room

A Life in Letters

The lost art of the written letter….

As email gained support and strength so the joyous nature of sending and receiving a letter sadly diminished and not just on a personal level but as a tool for recording the lives of those we most admire or revile. I have a number of books which are compilations of written correspondence between people of note, I find them a fascinating indicator of both the person(s) and times which can add invaluable context and the human face to key historical moments.

There is much to love about the internet; email, now taken for granted truly is a remarkable thing for those of us old enough to know life before it, we have near unlimited and immediate access to knowledge yet we don’t seem to use it. I both love and loathe email for personal and professional reasons but it is the loss of the written letter which I mourn the most.

There are some truly wonderful examples of written correspondence by people of influence in the  past century, often witty, cutting remarks against their peers, sometimes alarmingly melancholic others simply reassuring and kind. The late Christopher Hitchens in one of his final interviews with Brian Lamb, the founder of C-Span, talked about the “hand-written letters delivered to my door” when his terminal illness became apparent and the re-affirmation of the importance of a letter, saying “Never put off writing a letter to someone who is in distress

In Man of Letters, a joyous compilation of the writings of Spike Milligan we see a man completely at one with the art of letter writing. Many, unsurprisingly, are zany but there are also deeply touching correspondences with members of the public sharing with him their mental health issues. Milligan’s responses were kind but realistic, sharing with them his own troubled moments rather than a signed stock photo by return of post.

Oh to have been a recipient of a letter from Steinbeck or Miller for example, to read the inner thoughts of one great author about another, this new century with its billions of emails and images will swallow up the moments when a few grateful moments of words read had the possibility to make a difference in so many ways.

 

Categories: The Reading Room

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