Exploring the History of Letters

51SWbLC9pmL._SY346_Savoring, Reading, Saving Letters

I love to read letters. Not only letters written to me, but letters from long ago and far away. Similar to diaries and journals, letters are precious as quotidien recordings of every day happenings. In addition, the span of letters over the years of human existence are a window into how humans have explored, depicted, and dissected events and experiences over the centuries, and how they have sought to share ideas and observations in their letters as a way of connecting with one another.

Letters cover everything from love to war, finances to religion, child rearing to grave site planning. Letters offer wisdom and foolery, sincerity and pretense, affection and dislike. Letters offer connection between writer and reader. Letters are a unique window into the human experience.

In my upcoming book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered, coming out in April 2014 from Simon and Schuster, I tell the story of how I discovered a trove of hundred year- old letters in my own backyard. Among the letters were missives written by a Princeton freshman to his mother in the early 1900s. My oldest son was  heading off to college and I wondered: will he write to me?  And why do I want him to?

I set off on a quest through the history of letter writing: I explore and define all the fascinating aspects of letters — everything from the cloak of privacy to the singularity (no letter is like any other), and including their use as medium for advice, love, and immortality. In reading through letters from the Ancient Eygptians to modern day correspondents, I find letters to be important in every age, not only for the words shared and effort taken, but as proof of existence, manifestation of affection (or esteem or love), and for the circle of experience created, between one person and another.

Do I hope for a resurgence of letter writing, and a staving off of the extinction of written correspondence? Maybe, just maybe — if I can make a solid enough case that letter writing is one of our most beautiful and powerful means of connection, remembrance, and resilience.

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10 thoughts on “Exploring the History of Letters”

  1. I love the art of the written letter and cherish the few that grace my mailbox these days. I am trying to teach my children how to write letters, not just thank you’s for the legos or gift certificates, but to make connections with distant relatives. I always buy them stationery for their birthdays in hopes that it inspires them to leave their texting worlds behind from time to time.

  2. Carefully chosen words, whether privately shared in a personal letter or published in a public forum, make a society more civilized, its citizens more compassionate, and the world an inviting opportunity, rather than a lonely, scary place. Thank you for this interesting blog, for encouraging reading, and for proving reading’s value.

  3. So enjoyed the 8/14 NYT article on you and look forward to following your reviews of books. I’ve become a reader later in my life, and as a result have many worlds to explore. Thanks for being an inspiration.

  4. I am hopelessly devoted to the ancient art of writing on paper. I know that I cannot do without computers and e-mail for my work (I work in a bookshop (de Tribune) in Maastricht, The Netherlands). As long as it is strictly business, e-mail is fine, but I will not use it for personal messages.
    There is nothing better than sitting down at my desk, filling my fountainpen, taking out the right kind of paper for my correspondent of that moment (the same choice goes for the right fountainpen by the way) and start writing.
    Sometimes this amounts to no more than friendly chatter. More often it helps me claerify my own thoughts and on a good day it leads to a letter worth saving – but because I save all letters that I get as well as copies of those I write, every letter-day is a good day.
    I wish you many good days.

  5. I must agree with you that writing a letter is endangered, but I also must argue so is any type of writing. My frineds and me write novels, but I am the only one who still writes her ideas on paper, and not type it out. I feel by writing it with your hand, and not typing a keyboard, you are putting alittle more of yourself and a little more effort in whatever you are trying to say. Thats why i have my friends write letters to me. That way i can feel the effort put into it.

  6. What a fantastic project. I wish you well Nina, and hope you reach the ultimate goal of bringing back the art of letter writing.
    Warmest
    Rob

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