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The Lost Art of Letter Writing

Written by Rebecca Christian

When was the last time you received a letter, I mean a real letter? I have to confess I’ve begun doing something I swore I never would, that is, sending thank you notes via email. These days “Take a Letter, Maria” and “Return to Sender”  already seem nostalgic; before long, they'll be downright quaint.

So I was delighted when the book The Art of the Personal Letter (A Guide to Connecting Through the Written Word) crossed my desk.

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In a handwritten intro, author Margaret Shepherd writes, "After a long exploration of ink, pens, and paper, I am discovering the new landscape of print and e-mail. The personal letter finds its voice in each new format. It's an art that will survive and endure as long as people like you put it to use in their lives." I hope she's right. I'm not sure email can capture the charm of a letter like this:

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The letter above is from architect Eero Saarinen to his wife Aline Bernstein in 1953; it's part of the Smithsonian's archives. His illustration is of the Michigan Music School, which was finished 11 years after the letter was written.

Recently when purging my basement, I came across a box of letters I’d saved. Many of them were from old friends. I decided to photocopy them for my own keepsakes, but then give the originals back to the senders as gifts, tied with a raffia ribbon  in a pretty box.

My correspondents loved getting reacquainted with their own younger selves, revisiting the emotional peaks and valleys of college years, bachelorettedom, and those busy, happy days of young motherhood.  One recipient was especially moved because  one of the letters in her packet had been written just after her last visit from her father. All of them asked, "Can you believe we used to go on like that for pages and pages?" Alas, I can't.

If you like books written in the epistolary style, you might want to put on your list (if you haven't already read them):

Griffin and Sabine, the first installment in two romantic and surreal trilogies, The Gryphon and The Morning Star, by Nick Bantock. They are about two artists, one who designs postcards and one who illustrate stamps. The book is a visual feast; inside are actual letters that the reader opens to read.

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Another epistolary novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, is a charmer about a young writer in post-World War II London who begins a correspondence with people who lived in the island of Guernsey, in the English Channel off the coast of Normandy, while it was under German occupation.

I enjoyed Guernsey, but it was just on the edge of too contrived and sweet for me. More bracing  is 84 Charing Cross Road, a book later made into a play and then a movie, with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins in especially fine form. It's about the 20-year real-life correspondence between New Yorker Helene Hanff, who sought out-of-print books, and Frank Doel, buyer for Marks & Co., an antiquarian bookstore in London. A friendship developed; the story is made bittersweet by the fact that Hanff did not visit the store until after Doel had died.

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I like to use fragments of old letters and postcards  in making stationery and cards. They also look pretty under glass on a table, or tied with a ribbon as part of a decorative vignette. I went through a stage of affixing vintage postcards and travel stickers to old suitcases, topping them with glass and using them as end tables or coffee tables. They look a little corny to me now; the last one has been consigned to the porch. I've heard of people making "wall pockets" to display important letters, but I'm not sure I should find out how; I'm a menace with a glue gun.

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Readers, do you still write letters? Are you printing out and saving your emails for posterity? How do you have your letters displayed?

 

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