When I saw Simon Garfield's book, "To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing," in the New at the Library list in the Independent Weekender earlier this summer, I put the title on my list to check out ASAP.
There are 14 chapters on letters and one chapter (the last one) on emails. In 2013, this author said that emails were already being supplanted by texting and other forms of social media.
We have evidence of letters going back to those written in Greece on papyrus in 350 B.C., so 2,350 years, at least, of people writing letters to one another. According to Garfield, the Romans were the first to have the traditions of letters as history and literature. He describes letters of such familiar names as Cicero, Pliny and Tacitus. Pliny wrote a letter to Tacitus in A.D. 79 about the earthquake on Mount Vesuvius.
Emails sent on the Internet began somewhere around 1990 and are already becoming history after 25 years of emails. Recently, universities have begun to archive emails and other digital papers.
When I was in elementary school, our English grammar book had an entire chapter on the proper form for writing letters - date, greeting, body, salutation, and signature and where these would be placed on the page. I didn't know until now that there were manuals for writing letters as far back as the 3rd century B.C. when Demetrius (not known which Demetrius) wrote about letters. "Everyone writes a letter in the virtual image of his own soul," he said (p. 98).
We accept letters as a distinct genre available in archival collections as well as book collections. Garfield's book tells us about the letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, John Keats, Emily Dickinson, Napoleon, Charles Schultz and many others. Just a quick look at our shelves at home turns up Harry Truman's letters to his wife Bess, letters of Colette, E.B. White, Thomas Jefferson and letters children wrote to God after Princess Diana died.
In 1521, a printing press in Cambridge, England, made it possible for letters to be collected, bound and archived. This marked another memorable change: "Libraries would take care of that from here on" (p. 104).
Many letter collections are love letters. This category began in earnest in 1100 A.D. with Heloise and Abelard. The author writes that many love letters are written during the times a couple was separated, but we read them years later with enjoyment, even though we understand the agony of the separations.
At the end of each chapter, we read the story of Chris Barker and Bessie Moore through letters they wrote to each other when he was a British soldier in World War II. These love letters are powerful reading. In the epilogue, the author explains that Mr. Barker gave the letters to his son Bernard, with instructions not to read them until both Mr. Barker and his wife Bessie were dead. These letters were then given to the archives of Sussex University, where the author read them and chose selections from them for his book.
It was 1573 when someone used the phrase "haste, post, haste," but letters often did not find their way to the destination intended until the mid 1840s in both England and America. In 1839, postage stamps were approved in England, and in 1847 stamps were approved in America. The United States of America named its first postmaster general, Samuel Osgood, in 1789. At that time, the person receiving the letter paid for its delivery.
There are other books about letter writing that interest me, but I'll put those on a list to read later and write a letter to my penpal Ruth in Selkirk, near Winnipeg, Manitoba, instead. I owe her a letter. Her last one to me was five handwritten pages.
Books can satisfy so many different kinds of curiosity. Whatever your interests are, stop in at the Marshall-Lyon County Library, and you can head straight for the section you want, browse, or stop at the desk for the help of our friendly librarians. We are so fortunate to have our library.
Hours at Marshall-Lyon County Library are from 9:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, from 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Friday, and from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday.