A Book of Letters

Epistolaries are books composed of letters. They can be fiction or non-fiction.

I have a fascination with novels in which the stories are told through letters written by one or more of their characters.  These stories, fictional epistolaries, don’t easily translate to the screen so, with exception, they mostly sit quietly on library and bookstore shelves, waiting to be discovered. 

 Here’s a list of some of my favorite fictional epistolaries:

 84 Charing Cross Road by Helen Hanff,

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows,

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, 

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki,

Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar,

Ella Minow Pea, by Mark Dunn, and 

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. 

For me, reading an epistolary is like probing the minds of the individual characters.  Their letters zero in on the circumstances, the places, and the times in which they live.

Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson, is one of my new, favorite fictional epistolaries.  It’s a contemporary novel composed of letters between Tina Hopwood, a sixty-something farmer’s wife from rural England, and Anders Larsen, a recently widowed professor who lives in Denmark and is now the curator of a Danish Museum.  

The story begins when Tina, who feels ignored and undervalued by her husband and adult children, can’t remember choosing the life in which she now feels trapped.  Questioning her own failure to pursue a girlhood fascination with Tollund Man, an Iron Age fossil (circa 250 B.C.) discovered in a Danish bog in the 1960’s, she writes a letter to the curator of the museum where the remains of Tollund Man are preserved.  Although the person to whom she initially writes is, by then, deceased, the current curator, Anders Larsen, obliges her with a polite response, inviting her to visit the museum.  

But when Tina answers his letter, she tells him that she has no desire to visit the museum, that the real reason she is writing, is “to make sense of myself”.  The childhood friend with whom she shared her interest in Tollund Man has died and Tina wants to understand why she (Tina) never pursued this passion.  She writes that she is not expecting a response but that she needs to be honest with herself and believes writing these letters will help her figure some things out about her life.  

Anders, an urbane, academic museum curator who deals only in facts and figures, responds again, discussing whether Tollund Man, whose neck was encircled by a rope when found, was the victim of a primitive ritual or was being punished for an offense against the community of which he was a part.  Anders also shares that his wife recently passed away and, he mysteriously adds, he has no place to visit her remains.  He asks Tina to continue to write because her letters are making him think. 

Curious to know the story of Anders’ wife, Tina writes again and Anders begins to open up about the details of his lonely personal life.  Without giving away too much of the story, I’ll just say that over the next year, the pair relies on snail mail and eventually email (In my opinion, the story’s only disappointment), to exchange their stories, becoming more and more open with one other as they do. Although the letter writers are insulated from one another as they pen their missives, it is this same insulation that seems to provide the sense of security needed for each to share the disappointments and elations of their private lives. At one point, Tina writes, “If I destroyed the first half of this letter, it would be to disguise myself from you, and I do not want that, so I will send it.”  

As each begins to better understand the choices they made during their lives, they also learn that, despite vastly different backgrounds, they have much in common.  When a dramatic and unexpected event befalls each of the correspondents, they find themselves relying on the bond they’ve developed through their letter writing to try to cope with their respective situations.  

I think I was drawn to this little book because I’d previously read that, like me, the author of Meet Me at the Museum, began writing after she retired and this story, like some of my own writing, focused on the lives of people who, because of their age, were viewed by much of the world as neither having value nor being interesting.  But I didn’t have to read far to see that the characters in this unique, understated work were very interesting. There was an intelligence to Meet Me at the Museum, a richness that was revealed as these two people, well past the prime of their lives, continued to discover who they were and, in the process, realize that perhaps their own love stories were not entirely over.  

This simple tale, well-told, captured not just my interest, but my heart.  If you’re looking for a quiet, thoughtful book and you, too, appreciate a good epistolary, I recommend Meet Me at the Museum.  

Copies of the book are currently available at Bay Books in Suttons Bay.

Musing

Recently, I received an amazing package from my dear friend, Lynn. The Book of Correspondence, which she imagined and then created, quickly became one of my most treasured possessions.  I keep it on my writing desk because it’s full of images and words that inspire and delight me. I never tire of looking through it and I thought I’d share it here with you.

Lynn Parise is a Michigander who creates collage art from antique photos and postcards, decoupaged pictures, clever sayings, thread, postage stamps, old telegrams, wire, keys, drawer pulls, charms, beads, envelopes, and even dictionary definitions.  

Here’s a photo of one of my favorite pages in The Book of Correspondence:

See what I mean about inspiration?

Here’s another favorite page:

And if this amazing book wasn’t enough, last week she snail mailed me one of what she calls her “Tag Cards” with a handwritten letter on the back.  

“I have arrived, you may bring forth the frivolity and high jinks.”

Needless to say, this little girl has become my latest muse, reminding me to have fun and enjoy this slow correspondence journey I’m on.  

Besides being a unique and loving person, Lynn’s a mentor and an extraordinarily creative artist. Her tag card and The Book of Correspondence make me smile.  They also remind me that correspondence comes in many forms: not just letters but sketches, photos, poems, recipes, funny sayings, and any other creative way people send love to the world.

See more of Lynn’s creations at lynnparisestudios.com or email her at Lynnparisestudios@gmail.com.

Slow Food/Slow Correspondence

My sister-in-law is a marvelous cook.  “Come for dinner,” she answers when I ask what we can do for her during these difficult days.  Although we decline her invitation because of COVID, we’re aware that cooking for other people is how she chooses to spend her time and, consciously or not, it’s how she demonstrates her love.  

It’s never takeout or fast food when we dine in her home.  She makes a conscious effort to search through her cookbooks and recipe collections, to select just the right seasonal menus and dishes.  Every detail, from the candles and flowers to the after-dinner tea, is chosen. She carefully shops for the ingredients she needs, then chops, dices, and slices, before she measures and mixes the food she serves her grateful guests.

In an article titled “In the Day of the Postman”, social commentator Rebecca Solnit wrote,

         “The real point about the slow food movement was often missed.  It wasn’t about food.  It was about doing something from scratch, with pleasure, all the way through, in the old methodical way we used to do things.  That didn’t merely produce better food; it produced a better relationship to materials, processes, and labor, notably your own, before the spoon reached your mouth.  It produced pleasure in production as well as consumption.  It made whole what is broken.” 

My sister-in-law may or may not consider herself part of the slow food movement. I’ve never asked her. But I do know that every bit of her cooking is done from scratch, often from recipes her mother favored. I know that she takes great pleasure in preparing these meals. And we certainly take great pleasure in eating them.

In addition to the food, she offers us lasting and warm memories.   Because she took the time, our lives are enriched. We are reminded that we are loved.

Letter writing is how I spend a fair amount of my time these days. Because I do, I think I’m learning not just who I care enough to write to but what I care about as well.  When I pause and sit quietly, alone but also with a sense of the person to whom I am writing, I enjoy a clarity of mind I don’t usually feel when I’m elsewhere. At my writing desk, the space that surrounds me feels something approaching sacred.  It’s there that I can insulate my thoughts — there’s no television, no computer pop-ups, no multitasking, no email boxes filled with advertisements and selling, no other entities vying for my attention.  I have time to mull over the subjects I know will interest the person I’m writing to, decide which stories about my life I want to share, and search for the right phrases or the precise words that best express my thoughts. From my selection of the piece of stationery I will write on to the stamp I attach to the envelope before sliding it through the mail slot at the local post office, the process of writing a letter is a pleasure for me.  I think of my outgoing mail as offerings to my recipients.

Letter writing is slow correspondence.  And much like slow food isn’t so much about the food, slow correspondence isn’t just about the letters.  It’s slowing down, taking a breath, appreciating the days of this life in words we record on paper with pen and ink. It’s creating something from scratch and then sharing it, like a good meal, with pleasure and love.   

Winter view from my Writing Desk
No comments to show.

Who Invented the Christmas Card?

In 1843, the year Charles Dickens first published A Christmas Carol, the British Postal System initiated the “Penny Post”, enabling the Sender to mail a card or letter anywhere in England for the cost of a penny stamp.  Prior to that, although it was often cost prohibitive, people had mailed Christmas and New Year’s letters to close friends and family.  But when these cheap stamps became available, more people than ever began sending Christmas letters.  Because it was considered bad manners not to respond to mail during Victorian times, people who had a lot of friends found they couldn’t keep up and looked for a solution to their problem.

One prominent socialite and arts patron with this dilemma, Henry Cole, founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum, enlisted an artist friend to help.  The artist created images on a triptych: the inner panel showed a family seated at a table celebrating the holiday and on both sides were images of people helping the poor.  Henry Cole had a thousand copies printed on stiff cardboard approximately 5 by 3 inches.  Each card had a generic greeting and a blank where Cole could fill in the name of the recipient.  Although the idea didn’t catch on immediately, within a few years other prominent Victorians copied Cole’s idea and began sending out similar cards during the Christmas season.

In the U.S., the first credited Christmas card was created in 1875 in Boston.  It was a painting of a flower and it read, “Merry Christmas”.  During the coming years, most U.S. Christmas cards contained pictures of animals, nature, or autumn scenes rather than winter or religious scenes.  Card publishers began organizing competitions and people collected these cards, like stamps or coins.  Each season, newly designed cards were reviewed in newspapers.

The modern Christmas card is attributed to a Kansas City postcard printing company owned by the Hall brothers.  The Hall Brothers Company (which later changed its name to Hallmark) adopted a book format for its cards so people had more room to write their holiday messages without having to write an entire letter.  These cards measured 4 by 6 inches, were folded once and inserted in an envelope.  This new format became the industry standard.  The fronts of these cards included seasonal art and in the coming decades, Hallmark and their competitors hired artists like Salvador Dali, Grandma Moses, and Norman Rockwell to design their cards. 

In 1963, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy created two paintings for Hallmark to display on a special edition of Christmas cards. One of these paintings is shown here. All proceeds from the sale of these cards were donated to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. 

Nowadays, Christmas cards are often produced by small publishers and artists.  There are pop-up cards, photo cards, video cards, and audio cards as well as traditional paper cards.  And, of course, there’s always the Christmas letter; not a Christmas card but I’d venture, just as welcomed and appreciated as any Christmas card. 

[This blog post is derived from a 2015 article in Smithsonian Magazine]

No comments to show.

There’s Nothing Wrong with Emails

There’s nothing wrong with communicating by email. 

Emails are quick, productive, and simple.  They’re also efficient.  When we want to shoot out identical information to a bunch of people, emailing is ideal. There’s even a name for that kind of explosive electronic mailing: it’s called an “email blast”.  

Emails are great when we’re in a hurry or facing a deadline. Also, emailing (and its cousin, texting) offer us the ease of responding with clever abbreviations, memes, and emoticons so we don’t have to bother coming up with a more precise word or phrase to express exactly what we want to say.  With emails and texts, we simply pick and poke, react rather than respond.  It’s so easy.

However, although no one loves seeing the name of a familiar Sender in her Email Inbox more than I do, I recently concluded that an email or text, no matter how clever or heartfelt the message, just doesn’t take the place of a real letter. Maybe it’s because I read the message on a screen and when I close my computer or my phone, it disappears.  Maybe it’s that we’re all in this self-enforced seclusion where we can’t hug, we can’t socialize, and we can’t gather together; maybe because of that, I found myself seeking something more physical, a more tactile way I could connect to people I care about.

I began wondering whether our society’s transition from handwritten letters to emailing and texting was one of those changes we let happen without thinking it through.  Whether we mindlessly replaced a type of communication that some of us now look back on and miss. 

In a 2019 Opinion Piece for the New York Times, computer scientist and author Cal Newport argued that Steve Jobs never meant for iPhones to become our constant companions.  He wrote that Jobs envisioned the iPhone as a device to help us with a small, select number of activities like listening to music, placing calls, and generating directions. 

I’d go so far as to venture that even the forward-thinking Mr. Jobs never intended that emailing and texting should replace the art of letter writing.  Or that writing letters by hand should become obsolete or even disappear from our culture.

Not long ago, when I was in a COVID-fatigue funk, I stopped in my local post office to pick up our mail. Amidst the usual bills, advertisements, and political propaganda, was a letter, a real letter sent to me from a Florida friend.  She’s a visual artist so she’d decorated the envelope with rubber stampings of snails holding tiny envelopes in their mouths, with fun, illegible script, with washi tape, and with three different postage stamps.  Standing in the post office lobby, I got teary-eyed above my mask.  That letter, even unopened, was such an unexpected gift that it buoyed my spirits and inspired me to reexamine my own letter writing habits (or actually NON-habits).  That letter got me thinking. 

I decided that maybe it was time for me to cut the electronic cord, so-to-speak, or at least unplug it, to find a place where I can be alone with my thoughts, so I can reach out to friends and family who are dearly missed, through a handwritten letter.  Although the missives I’ve been writing are never perfect (often there are inserted words or crossed out phrases), if I’m honest, I can see that the rhythm of the words I pen resembles my speech patterns.  Which means the letters I’m sending are real.  Real in the physical sense and real in the sense that they’re reflections of who I am at this point in my life. 

During these challenging times, as the numbers of people infected by the COVID virus rise and we continue to hunker down, sequester, separate, and isolate ourselves, one antidote might be to write and send someone you care about a real letter.  Although it won’t be the same as an in-person connection, it might touch a chord and be a tangible link from you to that person in ways that emailing and texting, for all their benefits, cannot match.

These days, I still send emails and texts when the situation warrants it.  But I also make time to write real letters, hoping that when someone finds an envelope from me in their mailbox, it reminds them that they, too, are one-of-a-kind, special, and most of all, real.  Just like the letter they are about to open.

No comments to show.