Monday, 23 January 2017

Book Recommendations: Letters of Note

I've been extolling the joys of a book called Letters of Note recently, a two volume compilation of letters that makes for perfect reading if you're looking for a bit of refuge in these strange times we currently find ourselves living through. It's all been a bit confusing, dispiriting and unsettling, don't you think? But this book might help if you're looking for something to let a bit of light in. 

Both a lesson in history and a reminder that humans are capable of the most extraordinary acts of compassion, it's a really fascinating collection of letters written by people from all walks of life, from powerful heads of state to ordinary individuals. With motivations ranging from the globally important (you'll find a plea from Gandhi to Hitler to abandon his march on Eastern Europe "for the sake of humanity") to the more individualistic (there's a brilliant letter by a copywriter pitching for a job as a Hollywood screenwriter) the collection shows how powerful the written word can be. 

With the world currently in tumult, I found it reassuring to read letters written at times when humanity was going through similar upheavals and uncertainties. There are also examples of the incredible kindness of strangers in the book; a particularly poignant letter to the Ciulla family - whose son Frank was killed in the Lockerbie air crash - displays how the written word can extend a hand of friendship and connection that crosses physical boundaries and geographical borders, giving comfort and hope in times of personal tragedy. 

Amongst the poignant notes, you'll find truly uplifting pieces of correspondence - a lovely letter from Roald Dahl to a young reader, a tongue-in-cheek "personal letter" from actor Steve Martin and a hilarious response to a disgruntled reader from Spike Milligan. 

The letters in this first book are a wonderful, diverse and fascinating examination of what it means to be human. A love letter to letters, it's a useful reminder that the world is always in flux, that life is messy and things can seem pretty bleak at times - the writers of many of these letters were looking for answers to life's big questions or simply a ray of hope during difficult times. 

As a new, uncertain year dawns, I found this letter from writer EB White (author of Charlotte's Web) particularly pertinent - it was a response to a Mr Nadeau who sought his opinion on what he saw as a bleak future for the human race:

Dear Mr. Nadeau
As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.
Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.
Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.
E. B. White
Find out more about Letters of Note and buy your copy here.
E.B. White letter and page inserts reproduced with thanks to Letters of Note

1 comment

  1. This book sounds brilliant. Definitely need to get my hands on a copy!


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