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.