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Letter writing is one of the great undervalued literary forms. Letter writing probably contributes the outright majority of the world’s literary output – almost certainly so today, in the age of the email – but most people writing letters and emails are blissfully unaware of the fact they’re doing any such thing.

The value of letters is both intentional and incidental; they reveal as much about their times as any newspaper, and as much about their author as any diary. The letters of Mary Wortley-Montagu – published at her behest in her own lifetime – essentially introduced English society to what was then known as the Orient, and the Islamic empire of the Ottoman Turks; Anton Chekhov’s letters from his journey the length of Russia, from his home in Moscow to the prison colony on Sakhalin Island in the Far East, chronicled the realities of life in the Russian Empire – something which Chekhov himself subsequently spent much of his life struggling to change.

Many of our language’s great aphorisms come originally from written correspondence, such as Thomas Jefferson’s advice in a 1792 letter to George Washington that “delay is preferrable to error”, or Benjamin Franklin’s observation that “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes” in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy three years earlier. Sometimes it’s the repartee that goes down in history, as when George Bernard Shaw wrote to Winston Churchill ahead of the opening of his play Major Barbara: “I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend – if you have one.” Churchill’s reply was that he could not make the first night, but would attend the second. If there was one.

All of which is why I think this blog – Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience – is so interesting. It’s the kind of blog that really should be collected into a book, but probably won’t be. I recommend you have a look, and it’s updated daily, so check back often. Letters featured include Gandhi’s letter to an American follower, correcting him on the matter of Gandhi’s presumed hatred of the British, Philip K. Dick’s letter to the FBI, informing them that a series of burglaries at his home as well as several approaches by strange men were all part of a plan to enlist science fiction writers in a communist plot to start World War III, and a 14-year-old Slash’s letter to an ex-girlfriend after she dumped him for talking about his guitar too much.

Categories: Opinion
  1. mlynxqualey
    August 24, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    Point taken; before email, I used to lavish attention on my correspondence. I certainly correspond no less (more, I’m sure), but hardly think of it that way. I will have to again.

    And thanks for the link, too.

  2. September 23, 2010 at 12:05 pm
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