Book review: A fan of letters

From F.D.R. to Ayn Rand, an unusually entertaining ode to a fading art.

EMAIL  |   PRINT  |   SHARE  |   RSS
google my aol my msn my yahoo! netvibes
Paste this link into your favorite RSS desktop reader
See all RSS FEEDS (close)
By Daniel Okrent

Best advice I ever got
In a world of uncertainty, we could all use a little advice. So we asked a host of influential leaders to share with us the wise words that changed their lives forever.

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- The novelist and critic Thomas Mallon began to explore the idea of a book about letter writing, he tells us, "when a first-class stamp cost 29¢."

Just think of what has happened to letter writing since then: IMHO, you could LOL. Or weep.

As Mallon doesn't need to tell us in Yours Ever: People and Their Letters (Pantheon), he's writing about a practice that for at least eight centuries was the primary means of communication between people who happened not to be in the same place at the same time.

It was more than just communication, though; it was a form of human conduct enhanced, even exalted, by the demands it imposed on those who practiced it.

He writes, "The small hardships of letter writing -- having to think a moment longer before completing utterance; remaining in suspense while awaiting reply; having one's urgent letters cross in the mail -- are the things that enrich it, emotionally and rhetorically."

Mallon's stroll through letter-writing history, arranged by genre (Absence, Friendship, Complaint, Confession, etc.) and brightened by selective quotation from exemplary practitioners, is itself like good letter writing -- fluid, discursive, aphoristic.

Graham Greene's correspondence reveals a man, writes Mallon, "relentlessly corrective and just as frequently wrong." Mark Twain's vivid, full-blooded letters provide "a moving picture instead of the typical collection of stills." On the cranky complaints of Thomas Jefferson, Mallon writes, "the citizen reading them today is disinclined to approach the man's table and pull up a chair."

Most of the people whose letters Mallon explores are literary sorts (no surprise there -- most people you'll encounter in a poker game know how to play cards). But Mallon's erudition (which he wears lightly) and his curiosity (which he shares generously) have sent him diving into words left behind by royalists and revolutionaries, murderers and lovers, Ann Landers and Ayn Rand.

He parses missives as ancient as those that Abélard wrote to Héloise, as recent as the Unabomber's, and as unlikely as the steaming love bombs that Woodrow Wilson -- strait-laced, upright, no-fun-at-all Woodrow Wilson -- sent from the White House to his second-wife-to-be.

Presidents generally make good material for Mallon. Franklin Roosevelt's effusive correspondence, for instance, is littered with so many exclamation marks it would embarrass a sophomore at a girls' boarding school. It may be disconcerting to encounter a great leader writing to his ambassador to Italy to say, "Watch out for that tummy!" -- but having read it, I suspect I know F.D.R. more fully than I did before.

That's true about most of the people you'll run into in this engaging book. Given the present and future of letter writing, it's a privilege to be cherished. To top of page

Company Price Change % Change
Ford Motor Co 8.29 0.05 0.61%
Advanced Micro Devic... 54.59 0.70 1.30%
Cisco Systems Inc 47.49 -2.44 -4.89%
General Electric Co 13.00 -0.16 -1.22%
Kraft Heinz Co 27.84 -2.20 -7.32%
Data as of 2:44pm ET
Index Last Change % Change
Dow 32,627.97 -234.33 -0.71%
Nasdaq 13,215.24 99.07 0.76%
S&P 500 3,913.10 -2.36 -0.06%
Treasuries 1.73 0.00 0.12%
Data as of 6:29am ET
More Galleries
10 of the most luxurious airline amenity kits When it comes to in-flight pampering, the amenity kits offered by these 10 airlines are the ultimate in luxury More
7 startups that want to improve your mental health From a text therapy platform to apps that push you reminders to breathe, these self-care startups offer help on a daily basis or in times of need. More
5 radical technologies that will change how you get to work From Uber's flying cars to the Hyperloop, these are some of the neatest transportation concepts in the works today. More
Worry about the hackers you don't know 
Crime syndicates and government organizations pose a much greater cyber threat than renegade hacker groups like Anonymous. Play
GE CEO: Bringing jobs back to the U.S. 
Jeff Immelt says the U.S. is a cost competitive market for advanced manufacturing and that GE is bringing jobs back from Mexico. Play
Hamster wheel and wedgie-powered transit 
Red Bull Creation challenges hackers and engineers to invent new modes of transportation. Play

Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2018 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2018. All rights reserved. Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor's Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2018 and/or its affiliates.