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To the Letter

To the Letter

To the Letter

Dear Margaret, We regret to inform you that your husband is missing in action…

Dear Mother, Finally, I can write the words: Born this morning, a beautiful baby girl…

Dear John, I’m sorry but I just can’t do this anymore…

Dear Grannie, Did I leave my spectacles at your house?

Dear Roger, Little Alice’s rabbit died, and she wants to know what rabbit heaven looks like…

Dear Annabelle, dear, dear, dear, Annabelle…

The letter. Bearer of news, recorder of moments, preserver of memories, safekeeper of emotion for thousands of years. Empires were built and destroyed on letters; relationships fostered and fractured; the greatest creative works inspired; the greatest inventions documented.

And yet, how often do you take pen to paper these days? How many sheaves of writing paper lie waiting in your drawer? Is your fountain pen flowing with fresh ink, or languishing long forgotten in the same dusty corner? Is your address book full of promise? Are postage stamps ever present in your purse? Is the path to the post box a well-trodden one?

‘No,’ many of us would admit. ‘But I do send a lot of emails…’

And therein lies the sad truth: the letter is part of ‘a vanishing world’. Enter Simon Garfield’swonderful book To the Letter.

From the blurb:

To the Letter tells the story of our remarkable journey through the mail. From Roman wood chips discovered near Hadrian’s Wall to the wonders and terrors of email, Simon Garfield explores how we have written to each other over the centuries and what our letters reveal about our lives.

Along the way he delves into the great correspondences of our time, from Cicero and Petrarch to Jane Austen and Ted Hughes (and John Keats, Virginia Woolf, Jack Kerouac, Anaïs Nin and Charles Schulz), and traces the very particular advice offered by bestselling letter-writing manuals. He uncovers a host of engaging stories, including the tricky history of the opening greeting, the ideal ingredients for invisible ink, and the sad saga of the dead letter office. As the book unfolds, so does the story of a moving wartime correspondence that shows how letters can change the course of life.

To the Letter is a wonderful celebration of letters in every form, and a passionate rallying cry to keep writing.

As the author explains on his website:

To the Letter is both a celebration and a lament, and hopefully an inspiration. But it also asks some proper questions, not least, ‘How will we be able to tell our history without letters?’ I make it clear in the book that I don’t think the answer lies with emails.

The history of letters and letter writing, with all its quirks, makes for fascinating reading, but for me the real magic of the book lies in its pulling together letters spanning two millennia of history. Two millennia! After so long, are we the generation who is killing the letter in our ever-expanding quest to be paper-free?

The author shared with the BBC his view on the future of letter writing:

What do you think? Is letter writing dying a death? Are emails a suitable substitute? Should we write – and keep – more letters? I would love to hear your thoughts.

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