Book Reviews : To the Letter / Letters of Note : Still under the Spell of Letters

By Robinson, David | Scotland on Sunday (Edinburgh, Scotland), October 27, 2013 | Go to article overview

Book Reviews : To the Letter / Letters of Note : Still under the Spell of Letters


Robinson, David, Scotland on Sunday (Edinburgh, Scotland)


To The Letter: A Journey Through A Vanishing World, Simon Garfield, Canongate, GBP 17.99Letters Of Note, Ed Shaun Usher, Canongate/Unbound, GBP 30WHEN will it come, asks Simon Garfield, that day when the last proper letter - not a bill or a computer- generated mailshot, but a thoughtful, thought-about message that is entirely personal to us - flops through our letterbox? And who amongst us, bending down to pick up the latest crop of impersonal doormat bumf, hasn't feared that the dreaded day has already dawned?Most of us, surely, have letters that we treasure, stored away in a shoebox or imprinted on our minds, and it's depressing to think of a world without such epistolatory distillations of love (and it usually is love, or at least kindness). Email can't possibly compete.Garfield has a keen eye for what makes a good letter - and at least in classical times it is the opposite of what was thought at the time. Pliny the Younger, for example, concluded his terrifying description of the destruction of Pompeii in 79AD by apologising that "of course these details are not important enough for history" - rather ironic, given that his letter is the only contemporary description of Vesuvius blowing its top to have survived.Nor is it true that letters are invariably a sure guide to character: Jane Austen's, Garfield notes, are "cool, dispassionate and occasionally rather heartless", and lack the psychological insights and wit of her novels. Then again, as they were written with family news rather than publication in mind, perhaps we shouldn't expect anything else. In any case, as Dr Johnson pointed out: "There is no transaction which offers stronger temptation to fallacy and sophistication than epistolatory intercourse."Garfield is a knowledgeable guide to his subject. He trots effortlessly through a somewhat predictable list of exemplars such as Mme de Sevigne and Lord Chesterfield, various guides to letter-writing, and then email etiquette, and gives a succinct overview of the development of Rowland Hill's postal revolution. He's been to letter auctions, interviewed people assembling archives of author's correspondence, and joined in an intriguing project involving writing letters to strangers. He's also quick to pick up on essential trivia, such as when Postman Pat switched to delivering parcels rather than letters, and gives us intriguing snippets, such as the Queen Mother's sign-off on a wartime condolence letter to a friend: "Tinkerty tonk old fruit & down with the Nazis". …

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