A son’s departure for college prompted Sankovitch (Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading, 2011, etc.) to wonder, “Why does a letter mean so much?”
Wanting more than the usual texts and occasional phone calls from Peter, his mother tucked a box of notecards with stamped envelopes into his luggage. Her desire for an actual handwritten letter got the author thinking about the different ways in which correspondence connects us to others, and her agreeable narrative roams through many varieties: love letters, thank-you letters, condolence letters, letters to friends, letters of advice, etc. Sankovitch begins with her discovery of a cache of old letters in the dilapidated house she and her husband, Jack, bought on Manhattan’s Upper West Side when their four children were small. Most were from James Bernheimer Seligman to his mother while he was at Princeton (1908–1912), and Sankovitch loved her “escape from my life as a mother…into a life as a turn-of-the-century man about town.” Some letters plunge us into a historical period, she notes; others preserve memories from our own: “Most of us won’t make it into the history books….But we can leave a part of ourselves behind in the letters we write.” The author sees letters as a private space in which we can express thoughts and feelings we might not want to voice publicly, yet unlike a diary, they are shared with another person in an act of intimacy and trust. She illustrates her points with famous examples—Heloise’s letters to Abelard, James Joyce’s lustful correspondence with Nora Barnacle; Emily Dickinson’s flirtatious one with Thomas Wentworth Higginson—and muses on the pleasure of waiting for a letter to arrive, as opposed to the instant gratification of email.
There are no especially astounding insights here, but it’s a sweet-natured, well-written affirmation of the time-honored role of letters as a uniquely personal way to communicate.