Book Review: To the Letter by Simon Garfield


A book recommendation, straight from the non-air conditioned apartment where I carry my fan around like a security blanket:

To the LetterTo the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing by Simon Garfield

“They expose a grand truth, and often the same truth we may feel when we read Shakespeare and Austen: no matter how original we consider ourselves to be, it is evident that our emotions, motives and desires have echoes in the past. We’re not so special; someone else has almost certainly been there first.”

Simon Garfield, To the Letter (p. 200)

To the Letter is a history of letter writing that travels all the way back to the Roman empire — first by telling the story of a batch of letters written on flimsy wooden slices that were uncovered in the mud during an excavation in Vindolanda (the former location of a Roman fort in Britain) in the 1970s.

The book traces the history of letters and postal systems, but not in the tone of a stuffy history professor. Garfield’s words engage you, draw pictures of the characters involved, and provide humorous asides in footnotes as well as the regular text. Each chapter tackles a certain aspect, era, or phenomenon of the letter writing world. You follow him to auctions and university collections, where he pores over forgotten and prized documents, illegible handwriting, and considers the contexts in which these letters were written.

In between the chapters, a special treat: letters from a British soldier to his sweetheart during World War II. By reading along, you get to see his love for her form and grow as he’s away, when he’s anticipating return, and then after their reunion. I definitely let out a few “aww”s when I read these pages (though not all the letters are G-rated).

Throughout the book, Garfield quotes notable letters alongside others that are just interesting, demonstrating a particular benefit of still having these letters around: You can tap the wisdom of centuries ago, learn from people whose lives were different but not really simpler than our own. Some favorite quotations from To the Letter:

“You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate . . . All your bustle is useless. . . . You must lay aside the burdens of the mind; until you do this, no place will satisfy you.” Seneca the Younger (p. 56)

“You must try now to have the high opinion of yourself which the world will come to share if you do.” Pliny the Elder, writing to Caninius Rufus (p. 59)

“in a letter to the youngest Paston brother in 1477, a cousin advises him not to be discouraged by his prolonged pursuit of a wife, ‘for . . . it is but a simple oak that is cut down at the first stroke‘.” (p. 122)

“To be sincere in all my words and actions was the first precept of my early youth, I have ever since held it sacred.” From a letter writing guide (p. 161)

Lord Chesterfield (p. 168, 169):

“Very few people are good economists of their Fortune, and still fewer of their Time; and yet, of the two, the latter is the most precious.”

“Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.”

In addition to learning about the various letter writing manuals that have existed since people started writing letters, how the postal system evolved (in Europe, anyway; there’s little mention of the American system — not a word about the Pony Express), and how letter writing has served historians, you’ll also learn that Jane Austen’s letters were dull while other writers’ letters were better than any of their published work and that, unsurprisingly, some letters are better left unfound.

Every page of To the Letter is packed with details that draw you in as a reader. The book is nonfiction (of course) and not an arcing narrative in the traditional sense, but there’s a flow of thought that Garfield builds and develops by showing us as many facets of “the post” as possible.

At the beginning, Garfield introduces us to Felix Pryor, a former manuscript specialist who moved into collecting letters into anthologies:

“He regrets that is it principally the letters of the famous that survive, and that among history’ greatest casualties are the letters of ordinary people, who survive on paper only in legal documents.” (p. 197)

At the end, Garfield illuminates the challenges archivists are facing with shrinking physical documents and disappearing digital ones.

Then, he entreats the reader to write some letters. Which I am all for.

One more quote:

“Love letters catch us at a time in our lives where our marrow is jelly; but we toughen up, our souls harden, and we reread them years later with a mixture of disbelief and cringing horror, and — worst of all — level judgment.” (p. 336)

5 more reasons to read To the Letter:

  1. It’s written extremely well.
  2. It’s chock-full of interesting things you don’t know.
  3. It has pictures.
  4. It digs into every century since, basically, the dawn of civilization. (There wasn’t civilization before letters? Hmm…)
  5. It exposes humanity on a deeply personal level, confirming that people then weren’t that different from people now.

(You can currently buy the hardback for one cent on Amazon — not my copy. I’m keeping mine.)

Published by meredithsell

Freelance writer and editor. Nerding out over health & fitness, women's history, and untold stories.

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