What would you say if I told you there is a brand new collection of letters that you just have to see?
“Letters,” I can hear you saying, “who writes letters, let alone reads letters, anymore?”
Well, bear with me a moment. I think you’ll find this worthwhile.
Might you be interested in a letter written by Emily Dickinson to her one, true love? Or one written by Mahatma Gandhi to Adolf Hitler? What about one by Philip K. Dick on getting a brief preview (he didn’t live to see the final cut) of Bladerunner, the movie adaptation of his novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Or maybe a letter by Groucho Marx to Woody Allen might hit just the right spot?
Still not sold? There is a smoking note by Nick Cave to MTV, written with appropriate sarcastic grace (often referred to as the “My Muse is Not a Horse” Letter), in rejection of their nomination of “Best Male Artist of the Year.” Or a letter from Jack Kerouac to Marlon Brando saying he’d be great as Dean Moriarty in a film version of On The Road. Or Mark David Chapmen to a memorabilia expert inquiring as to the possible worth of an album signed by John Lennon mere hours before he murdered him?
I could probably go on and on tantalizing you with glimpses into Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving a Wider Audience.
Nearly as amazing as the contents, however, is the presentation. It is something of a coffee table book, though perhaps a bit on the smaller end of the format. The fact that it is a tad oversize is put to great advantage – it reproduces, in large format, the original typed or handwritten letters, telegrams (one from the Titanic), plus a clay tablet, alongside transcripts (particularly useful in deciphering the dodgy handwriting of creative types), as well as brief summaries giving context to the various exchanges.
May I mention just a few more? How about letters by Charles Dickens, Jack the Ripper, Charles Bukowski, Leonardo da Vinci, Mary Stuart, and Albert Einstein addressing, respectively, the topics of public executions, unimaginably abominable behavior, censorship, employment as a military engineer, final thoughts before being executed, and a sixth grade class’s query as to whether scientists pray?
And, oh, yes, there is the thousand plus years old ancient Chinese form letter written in apology for drunken behavior at a dinner party the evening before. It begins:
Yesterday, having drunk too much, I was intoxicated as to pass all bounds; but none of the rude and coarse language I used was uttered in a conscious state. The next morning, after hearing others speak on the subject I realized what had happened, whereupon I was overwhelmed with confusion and ready to sink into the earth with shame. …
That’s right, it’s a form letter – and you thought you knew how to party!
Billed by the publisher as a “spectacular collection of more than 125 letters,” this is no adperson’s hyberbole: it’s the real deal.
In my estimation, this collection is not the mourning of a passing art form but a celebration, a celebration perhaps not so much of the specific form itself (though it is, of course, that), but of the human races’ constant striving to communicate, to understand, and to survive.
Even if we don’t continue to write letters much anymore, we continue to communicate, which is reflected in the fact universities and libraries worldwide are collecting electronic correspondence as they once collected letters. The form may differ, but the creativity behind it is, if anything, becoming more varied and incredible as the years go by.
I do believe it might just be worth the wait to read the curated email correspondence of say, Margaret Atwood, or Neil Gaiman and, perhaps even of the notoriously reclusive Thomas Pynchon.
Just sayin’ or, more accurately, just readin’.
What follows is a letter from Mick Jagger to Andy Warhol in Letters of Note, at once charming, practical, and endearing, if sprinkled with casual obscenity, in a manner only Brits seem to be able to pull off with aplomb.