My health insurance incentivizes preventative care – they sent me a $20 Amazon gift card for getting a flu shot. Strange, but ok! I put it towards buying Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience, compiled by Shaun Usher. It had been on my wish list most of the year, and I was excited to finally get it.
It’s a big, beautifully designed book that should be read in print. It could be a book that’s kept out, opened sometimes at random and just dabbled in. But I read it cover to cover. Some of the letters are fascinating for their place in history – a short letter written by JFK on a coconut shell that led to his crew’s rescue during WWII. A letter from a young girl to Abraham Lincoln before he became president, recommending that he grow a beard. A Chinese form letter from AD 856 for people to use when they’ve gotten drunk and embarrassed themselves, and need to apologize. And then others are incredible for their content – advice given, feelings shared – beautifully written and so personal, since they originated from 1:1 correspondence. Each letter includes a few short paragraphs of context as an introduction, to frame the letter’s place in history and add to your enjoyment or understanding.
I enjoyed reading all of the letters chosen for the collection, but my favorites are:
– “Music is ‘Life it’self” – Louis Armstrong to Lance Corporal Villec
– “A man has to be something; he has to matter” – Hunter S. Thompson to Hume Logan
– “Do” – Sol Lewitt to Eva Hesse
– “Do not grieve for me” – Fyodor Dostoevsky to Mikhail Dostoevsky
– “Why explore space?” – Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger to Sister Mary Jucunda
– “Nothing Good Gets Away” – John Steinbeck to Thom Steinbeck
– “Things to Worry About” – F. Scott Fitzgerald to Scottie
– “Do Scientists Pray?” – Albert Einstein to Phyllis
I’ve always been drawn to published collections of letters from a single, famous author, but never usually enjoy them as much as I think I will. Even though they’ve been selected for publication, many of the letters are dull, or full of references to people and events that don’t make a lot of sense out of context. I think full letter collections can be great if you’re really passionate about a particular author and know a lot about their life – I am enjoying Kurt Vonnegut’s collected letters, for example. But most of the time, it’s nicer to have a book like “Letters of Note” to select the most interesting letters from history and assemble them into a great anthology. I hope that Shaun Usher will compile a sequel.
If you’re curious about this book and want a peek at what it’s like, here are some links from one of my favorite blogs, Brain Pickings. Maria Papova, the author of Brain Pickings, also loved Letters of Note, and selected it for her Best Books of 2014 list. She also featured some of her favorite letters in posts this year:
Censorship and What Freedom of Speech Really Means: Comedian Bill Hicks’s Brilliant Letter to a Priest
How to Pitch Yourself: A Lesson from Young Eudora Welty’s Impossibly Charming Job Application to The New Yorker
E.B. White’s Beautiful Letter to a Man Who Had Lost Faith in Humanity
20-Year-Old Hunter S. Thompson’s Superb Advice on How to Find Your Purpose and Live a Meaningful Life
“When I look back at the past and think about how much time has been wasted in vain, how much time was lost in delusions, in errors, in idleness, in ignorance of how to live, how I did not value time, how often I sinned against my heart and spirit, — my heart bleeds. Life is a gift, life is happiness, each minute might have been an age of happiness.”
-from “Do not grieve for me” – Fyodor Dostoevsky to Mikhail Dostoevsky