Book Review: Letters Of Note

Letters Of Note:  An Eclectic Collection Of Correspondence Deserving Of A Wider Audience, compiled by Shaun Usher

Being a person fond of compiling compendia, it is little surprise that I would enjoy reading them as well, and as someone who has a great fondness for making personal communications I suppose it is not surprising in the least that I would enjoy reading the personal communications of others.  And truly, this book lives up to its name, a book of intriguing letters that include historical treasures as well as touching and poignant correspondence, a work that is definitely does include a great many letters that are deserving of a wider audience.  As might be expected, some of the letters are not unknown to me, because of my historical readings, particularly the letters relating to Abraham Lincoln and how he got his famous whiskers thanks to an appeal by a shy eleven-year old who had the chance to meet Lincoln on his way to the White House.  The sheer variety of these letters indicates the complexity of personal correspondence and the way in which it can provide us with a surprising deal of insight into how people communicate with others and seek to convey approval or counsel or encouragement.

This book is a fairly long one, at more than 300 large pages, but much of it consists of pictures or reproductions of the actual correspondence, much of it hard to read because it is in foreign languages (like some fantastic letters from a widow to her sixteenth century Korean husband, some wonderful Novgorodian letters, and even a form letter to express embarrassment for getting drunk and saying some things that one should not have said), or because the handwriting is not good.  That said, these are in the main some excellent letters and Shaun Usher deserves considerable credit for compiling these letters.  Among the more saucy of the letters is one from Anaïs Nin to an anonymous collector about the need for there to be more than mere sex in erotic literature, something so basic one hardly wonders why it needed to be said, and there are also poignant examples of letters like the first of Rilke’s letters to a young poet and the call for help that JFK made from the sinking PT-109 during World War II, and a very touching recipe for scones from Queen Elizabeth II to President Eisenhower, among many other particularly interesting historical finds.

Letters can convey a great deal of content and are written for a variety of occasions, and this particular book provides an example of the excellent examples of letters that have come across the compiler’s sight.  Whether the writer was seeking to provide wisdom or encouragement, was seeking to smooth over embarrassment or discuss some sort of mutual business or to keep up a friendly acquaintanceship or even to seek some comfort in the face of loss, these letters range from the humorous to the poignant.  A great many of the letters come from famous people dealing with less famous people, as is the case with letters from animators to those who want to become better at drawing themselves, or the humorous letter written by Wil Wheaton to someone who had tried to join his fan club when she was eight and whose request had gotten misplaced and never reached him until long later.  Equally entertaining, though, are the way that we see various famous people use correspondence as a way to keep in touch with each other, as is the case with letters from Groucho Marx to Woody Allen and Mick Jagger to Andy Warhol, much of which demonstrates the way that thoughtful correspondence has always made the world a bit smaller and a bit friendlier, something that remains true even in our own times.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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