Reading Log: To the Letter (Simon Garfield)

Simon Garfield’s To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing is an entertaining journey through the history of the (mostly personal) letter, starting with fragments from Roman Vindolanda (85–130 A.D.) to modern day writers such as Ted Hughes, Anaïs Nin and Deb Olin Unferth, who Garfield discovers through the Rumpus’s Letters in the Mail project. Along the way Garfield explores the way letters evolved in form, content and technique, quickly becoming a studied thing—a genre—influenced by myriad factors from the availability of paper to the letter-writing manual boom of the 1800s…and eventually, of course, the advent of email.

But perhaps the most poignant and powerful examples in the book come in the form of a series of World War II letters that document the friendship—and then love—between Chris and Bessie Barker née Moore. Chris writes to Bessie from Algeria and Egypt, among other places and (though only a very small part of her side of the correspondence survives) Bessie writes from the increasingly dark and blitzed city of London. This series of letters is remarkable in many ways—for their élan and often fervid intensity, for their stoicism and matter-of-factness about the war—that rely upon the very fact that they aren’t remarkable. Chris Barker had an above-average way with words, but it’s only through happenstance that these letters survived and only by chance were collected by their son to find their way to Barker’s book. That remarkable, but ordinary, intensity is one of the central possibilities of the letter celebrated in Garfield’s book.

As an avid “snail mail” correspondent and sometimes fickle technology enthusiast, I empathize with Garfield’s mixed emotions about the slow demise of paper-based personal correspondence and his ambivalence about email. Thankfully, Garfield rarely veers into the elegiac (and technologically deterministic) territory that vexes my own daily life, though when he does, he goes all in with statements such as this describing his book:

It is not an anti-progress book, for that could have been written at the advent of the telegraph or the landline phone, neither of which did for letter-writing in the way that was predicted, certainly not in the way email has done. The book is driven by a simple thing: the sound – and I’m still struggling to define it, that thin blue wisp of an airmail, the showy heft of an invitation with RSVP card, the happy sneeze of a thank-you note – that the letter makes when it drops onto a doormat. Auden had it right – the romance of the mail and the news it brings, the transformative possibilities of the post – only the landing of a letter beckons us with ever-renewable faith. The inbox versus the shoebox; only one will be treasured, hoarded, moved when we move or will be forgotten to be found after us. Should our personal history, the proof of our emotional existence, reside in a Cloud server (a steel-lined warehouse) on some American plain, or should it reside where it has always done, scattered amongst our physical possessions? That emails are harder to archive while retaining a pixellated durability is a paradox that we are just beginning to grapple with. But will we ever glow when we open an email folder? Emails are a poke, but letters are a caress, and letters stick around to be newly discovered.

I can’t but agree with Garfield’s surmises and questions…even as I recognize on what idiosyncratic and personal grounds my agreement rests. I’ve had amazing correspondences via email—and even in the form of web pages and blog posts, private and not—but it always feels, as both writer and recipient, like something is missing from those exchanges even as I revel in their speed, reach and convenience.

I don’t want to scare anyone away from this book—as I noted, the actual discussion of snail mail “vs” email and such is limited, as the outlines of the history of correspondence would dictate, to the final few chapters. To the Letter is a fine work, effortlessly combining scholarship and readability in a manner that will leave most readers torn not between the feel of pen or keyboard, but between the desire to write a letter or find more of the many engaging, fascinating examples of letters quoted from throughout the book.

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