Magazine article The Spectator

'More Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience', by Shaun Usher - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'More Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience', by Shaun Usher - Review

Article excerpt

More Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience Shaun Usher

Canongate Unbound, pp.384, £30, ISBN: 9781782114543

This book is a serious bit of kit. Its hard covers measure 28.9 by 21 centimetres, and it weighs 1.62 kilograms -- 324,000 times the amount of valium, we learn on page 98, that Tom Clancy needed to appear on Good Morning America ('Sorry to wimp out, but, shit, I was scared'). The illustrations are beautiful. Very often they are simply the letters themselves (don't worry about handwriting, there are transcripts too), but sometimes they reference the content. For instance a photograph of butterflies accompanies the biologist Rachel Carson's letter about watching said creatures with a friend.. The butterflies were on their final migration, and Carson was dying of cancer: 'a happy spectacle... when any living thing has come to the end of its life cycle we accept that end as natural.'

Shaun Usher started his 'Letters of Note' blog in 2009. The door on which he knocked wasn't so much open as hanging off its hinges. You can see this in his vast Twitter following, the six-figure sales for his first book and the live shows at which that book's contents were performed. Now he has produced a sequel. Dipping into it at random (you don't read a book like this from the beginning -- that would only remind you it has to end), you realise why written communication will always be important. A letter gives you time to think. As Rachel Carson herself phrases it, the thought was something 'I can write better than say'. Then there's the distance you gain: Dorothy Parker sends her editor a telegram instead of telephoning because 'I can't look you in the voice'.

Writing also aids deception. Jessica Mitford's parents only let her leave Britain because a friend had invited her to France -- it later transpired that Mitford had faked the letter, and was off to the Spanish civil war. Then again, a handwritten letter can reveal uncertainty. For some reason John Lennon feels the need, in the course of asking Eric Clapton whether he'll join the Plastic Ono Band, to change 'of late' to 'lately'.

Sign-offs are a particular fascination. The filmmaker Hollis Frampton offers the Museum of Modern Art 'Benedictions'. Spike Milligan takes his leave of George Harrison with 'Love, light and peace'. Che Guevara's final words to his children (the letter was to be read only in the event of his death) are 'A great big kiss and a hug from Papa'. Alan Turing, shortly to plead guilty to homosexual acts, is 'Yours in distress', while Marge Simpson's elegant rebuke to First Lady Barbara Bush for some disparaging comments about her family ends 'With great respect'. …

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