My brother Michael and I were born about 16 months apart and have always been very close. When we started our adventures away from home, in the early 1990s, we began a series of correspondence by letter that has continued to this day. Back in the early days, we wrote each other once or even twice a week. We continue to correspond by pen and paper, although less frequently than in our youth, as we still live half a continent apart. Considered a “lost art” by many, both of us uphold the art of letter writing as communication, solace and even therapy. The library has many books about letter writing, and what better time to celebrate than December 7 – National Letter Writing Day!
For the author Hannah Brencher, letter writing was found to be an elixir for melancholy, leading her to pen the book “If You Find This Letter: My Journey to Find Purpose through Hundreds of Letters to Strangers.” The premise is especially captivating: Brencher started a website called “The World Needs More Letters” so that she might reach out beyond herself and connect with others, while attempting to recover from her bouts with serious depression. Thus began a campaign to spread love and well-wishes to strangers throughout the world. Brencher writes, after getting the project off the ground: “The stories kept coming. They keep coming very day. And with each one I read, there is less urgency to tie the thing up with a white bow or look for the happy ending.” You can find her website here: www.moreloveletters.com.
Uncertainty about engaging in this seemingly lost art might keep some people from writing. For encouragement, look no further than the book “The Art of the Personal Letter” by Margaret Shepherd. In chapters like “The Tools of the Trade,” Shepherd helps guide readers toward rewarding letter writing experiences. “Once you see how much easier it is to write with a roller-ball pen or marker, and how much better the script looks, you might be inspired to go one step further and explore the traditional look and feel of a fountain pen,” she writes. Included in the book are examples of real letters, samples of good penmanship and formats for “better document design.”
“For the Love of Letters: The Joy of Slow Communication,” written in 2012 by John O’Connell, is an exuberant celebration of the art. Using historical examples of the form from dozens of famous and not so famous Englishmen (O’Connell is British himself), he goes on to say, “letters shape and define lives. They also encapsulate them much more effectively than biography because they show rather than tell us what a person was like.” O’Connell also takes a long look at the letters produced during wartime, and how these particular letters often were the “only way to stay in touch with fathers, sons and brothers who had been posted abroad.”
Speaking of war – please see “Conkrite’s War: His World War II Letters Home.” Compiled by Walter Conkrite IV and Maurice Isserman, the book is a collection of correspondence by the then obscure 23-year-old United Press wire service reporter. His grandson, Conkrite IV, says in the introduction to the book, “The effect that World War II had on my grandfather was profound – and provided the foundation for the rest of his illustrious career.” Attached as a reporter to the 8th Air Force, Cronkite’s letters are at times filled with loneliness and longing for his life in America. Cronkite writes in January of 1944: “My precious Betsy, Here it is Betsymas Eve (referring to his wife’s upcoming birthday) and we are still apart and I am very lonely and unhappy. How much I would like to be with you on your birthday . . .” Interestingly, because of the sensitive nature of many of his assignments, most of his correspondence did not disclose his location or exact whereabouts.
Finally, one must not forget love letters. An especially touching volume, “The Love Letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning,” is found on our shelves. Browning writes in an early epistle: “Your letter made me so happy, dear Miss Barrett, that I have kept quiet this while: is it too great a shame if I begin to want more good news of you, and to say so?” Their letters are filled with longing but also with practical concerns as they were written in secret, mainly because of her demonstrative and abusive father. Elizabeth eventually married Browning and was subsequently disinherited.
Write a letter or two this month – to a loved one or even a stranger. You will feel better for it and help uphold this meaningful and very personal form of communication that has survived the centuries.