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Letters, letter writing, and Lexer recommended              
Book of the Month
From the publisher's description: "Few things are as exciting - potentially life-changing - as discovering an old letter. And while etiquette books still extol the practice, letter writing seems to be disappearing amid a flurry of e-mails, texting, and tweeting. The recent decline in letter writing marks a cultural shift so vast that in the future historians may divide time not between BC and AD but between the eras when people wrote letters and when they did not. So New York Times bestselling author Simon Garfield asks: Can anything be done to revive a practice that has dictated and tracked the progress of civilization for more than five hundred years?

In To the Letter, Garfield traces the fascinating history of letter writing from the love letter and the business letter to the chain letter and the letter of recommendation. He provides a tender critique of early letter-writing manuals and analyzes celebrated correspondence from Erasmus to Princess Diana. He also considers the role that letters have played as a literary device from Shakespeare to the epistolary novel, all the rage in the eighteenth century and alive and well today with bestsellers like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. At a time when the decline of letter writing appears to be irreversible, Garfield is the perfect candidate to inspire bibliophiles to put pen to paper and create 'a form of expression, emotion, and tactile delight we may clasp to our heart.'" Lexer recommended.

More Books of Interest
Clicking on a photo below, or a link in the descriptions to the right of the photos, will take you to Powell's bookstore. Any purchase you make by following one of these links will help support LEX – not just these items but any book or DVD in their inventory. Below the photo section are links to books that can be read online or downloaded free at Project Gutenberg.
Over 60 famous people write letters to their 16-year-old selves from their current position in life. Described as "By turns funny, surprising, raw, and uplifting," the letters are of course written for publication, and thus present not just what the writers want to say to their younger selves, but what they want the world to see them saying. Still, it's an interesting concept that many people will find inspiring, and others nostalgic. From the publisher's description: "Nostalgic, witty and filled with characters and situations that people of all ages will recognise, Dear Lupin is the entire correspondence of a Father to his only son, spanning nearly 25 years. Roger Mortimer's sometimes hilarious, sometimes touching, always generous letters to his son are packed with anecdotes and sharp observations, with a unique analogy for each and every scrape Charlie Mortimer got himself into. The trials and tribulations of his youth and early adulthood are received by his father with humour, understanding and a touch of resignation, making them the perfect reminder of when letters were common, but always special." A LEX Book-of-the-Month selection.
Did you ever wonder what would happen if you threw a letter-in-a-bottle into the ocean? Maybe nothing, maybe a response from someone who finds it, hopefully from a location far away. But in this book it isn't just the location that's far away - Gil's answer comes from the India of a century ago. Before the mystery is solved there's a ghostly postman, a genie, and a surprising amount of information about the history of making ink. Many books about letters are full of serious history, but sometimes one comes along that's fun as well as educational. Such is the case with Canadian author Natalie Hyde's first middle-grade fiction book, Saving Armpit. The new town postmaster is proving to be a great coach for the baseball team - but the post office is in jeopardy as the volume of mail declines, so the team begins a letter-writing campaign to increase the mail. A LEX Book-of-the-Month selection.
My Dear Mother: Stormy, Boastful and Tender Letters from Famous Sons includes letters from over fifty artists, such as Elvis Presley, Ezra Pound, E. B. White, Paul Cezanne, Henry James, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Richard Wagner, Victor Hugo, Jean Cocteau, Tennessee WIlliams, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In the words of the publisher: "This fascinating collection of letters between sons and mothers offers an intimate and unexpected glimpse into the mind and heart of the artist. From tenderness to outright brutality, possessiveness to indifference, sons and mothers share a wide range of emotions." A LEX Book-of-the-Month selection. In All New Letters From a Nut, Ted L. Nancy, author of the original Letters from a Nut, is back with a new compilation on the same theme. He writes seemingly serious but crazy letters to customer service departments, such as a letter to an Amsterdam hotel requesting a room for his 300 hamsters while he is producing a play called "Hamsterdam", and waits for a reply. For the most part, company representatives take the letters at face value, but the requests are so absurd the resulting responses are often hilarious. For this book, Mr. Nancy has written to Icelandic malls, German theme parks, shoe museums, foreign presidents, commode companies, and waffle cone businesses, with predictably nutty results. Years of speculation about the person behind the "Ted L. Nancy" pseudonym were ended recently when the true author, Barry Marder, made a live appearance on the Today show. See below for earlier letter books by Nancy, as well as similar compilations by other authors. A LEX Book-of-the-Month selection.
Letters of the Century: America 1900-1999 presents over 400 letters written by the famous and obscure (from Franklin Roosevelt to a Vietnam soldier, Albert Einstein to Bill Gates to an AIDS victim, and many more) that provide a glimpse into history and the people who lived it. The publisher says: "In these pages, our century's most celebrated figures become everyday people and everyday people become part of history." The letters are arranged by decade, with a brief synopsis of what the authors consider the most important or explanatory events of each, and photographs are also included, but it's the letters that take the spotlight. A LEX Book-of-the-Month selection. Although much of Dear Prof. Einstein: Albert Einstein's Letters to and from Children consists of biography and there are many more letters from children than Einstein's replies, it's still interesting to see the questions that kids thought Einstein could answer for them; and his responses, though somewhat sparse, show a side of Einstein not always obvious in the public stereotype.
Well-known to letter aficionados for his Griffin and Sabine books, Nick Bantock has also written Urgent 2nd Class: Creating Curious Collage, Dubious Documents, and Other Art from Ephemera. This inspirational guide to making art from old documents, letters, postcards, envelopes, seed packets, maps, playing cards, invoices and other tattered remains from the past is lavishly illustrated with Bantock's work. Chapters include Faux Mail, Postcards, Stamps, Rubber Stamps, and many others; postmarks (some real, some not) abound, and there's even a cross-written letter. In his chapter on rubber stamps, Bantock puts a new twist on the post office's tradition of stamping on envelopes: "PRECIOUS GIFT, pre-broken!", "WARNING: inadequate grammar", and, of course, "URGENT, second class". A LEX Book-of-the-Month selection. Was Groucho Marx as witty off-screen as on? Yes and no, as The Groucho Letters: Letters from and to Groucho Marx shows. The recipients range from poet (and Marx fan) T.S. Eliot to Groucho's daughter, and the sentiments from acid wit to tenderness. Also included are letters to Groucho, including the famous exchange with Warner Brothers over who owned the rights to the word "Casablanca" (and to "Brothers," as Groucho twisted the situation).
"Mail art is for everyone." That's the premise of Good Mail Day, by Jennie Hinchcliff and Carolee Gilligan Wheeler. Lavishly illustrated with examples and history, this 2009 book takes the reader from the basics to the most involved projects, touching on everything from where to find materials and ideas, what to do with paper in addition to writing on it, how to incorporate needed parts of the envelope such as the stamp, and not forgetting who to write to and why. In the words of the publisher: "A good mail day is a day when, instead of just bills, catalogs, and advertisements, your postal carrier delivers artful, beautiful, personal mail from friends and acquaintances all over the world." Lexer recommended. A LEX Book-of-the-Month selection. Half a century ago international reporter Geraldine Brooks was growing up in Australia, writing to pen pals around the world. As an adult she decided to reconnect with those whose letters had influenced her personal life and her choice of career; she recounts the inner and outer story from the beginning in Foreign Correspondence: A Pen Pal's Journey from Down Under to All Over.
Two decades in the making, Thomas Mallon's Yours Ever: People and Their Letters ranges through the centuries, using excerpts from letters to illuminate people in nine categories such as Friendship, Advice, and Complaint. The focus is not so much on the letters themselves (most represented by scattered sentences or even phrases), as on the way people have communicated through letters. In the words of the publisher: "Yours Ever is an exuberant reintroduction to a vast and entertaining literature – a book that will help to revive, in the digital age, this glorious lost art." And it mentions LEX! Lexer recommended. A LEX Book-of-the-Month selection. From a time before author's blogs were common, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien provides insight into Tolkien's worlds – the one where he was a college professor and family man, and the one he spent much of his life creating. Co-edited by Tolkien's biographer and by his son, this selection of letters offers glimpses of his creative process as well as his reactions to his fame. Until the complete collection comes along (in many volumes – Tolkien was a voluminous correspondent), hobbit fans and others will spend many happy hours in its pages.
Sometimes books of letters can be rather heavy reading – on the other end of the spectrum is Charles Osgood's Funny Letters from Famous People. The funny letters range from sarcastic to flippant, with an emphasis on the gently witty; the famous people, over 70 of them, are divided into "Politicians", "Authors", and "Denizens of the Fine Arts and Show Business". Some of the writers were humorists by nature – Mark Twain, Groucho Marx, Robert Benchley, Lewis Carroll – while others are more often thought of in serious contexts – Abraham Lincoln, William Faulkner, Frédéric Chopin. Osgood provides brief context for each writer, but the real enjoyment is in the letters – Harry Truman on appointing a Secretary of Semantics, Charles Lamb excusing himself for being drunk at a party, Mozart assuring his cousin that he's still alive... Lexer recommended. A LEX Book-of-the-Month selection. Laura Ingalls Wilder is inextricably associated with the American prairies due to the continued popularity of her "Little House" books, but in West From Home she describes her visit to San Francisco in letters to her husband back in Missouri, almost two decades before starting the books that made her famous. The visit, to her daughter Rose, coincided with the 1915 World's Fair, which makes up much of the subject matter of the letters; but they're more than just a travelogue, detailing Rose's newspaper job, suggestions for feeding the chickens back home, and other topics. Included are a few letters from Rose, and many vintage photographs of the Exposition and San Francisco.
Best known for The Lord of the Rings, every year at Christmas J.R.R. Tolkien would write and illustrate a letter to his children from Father Christmas himself. The letters would tell of the year's adventures and misadventures at the North Pole, including such inhabitants as the accident-prone North Polar Bear, Ilbereth the Elf, attacking goblins, and other creatures. Printed text of the letters accompanies the reproductions of the originals (Father Christmas had rather shaky handwriting, it seems). The most recent version, Letters From Father Christmas, includes ten pull-out letters in envelopes. "No reader, young or old, can fail to be charmed" says the publisher – and most readers are likely to agree. A LEX Book-of-the-Month selection. Lexer recommended. Ask people to finish the phrase "The Collected Letters of ..." and many will reply "Jane Austen". Rather surprisingly, only about 160 of her letters still exist – her sister Cassandra, to whom most of them were written, destroyed many and censored some of the rest, fearing their breezy comments might reflect badly on the Austen family. Several editions of the letters exist; Jane Austen's Letters builds on earlier editions and provides extensive notes, including discussion of the envelopes' postmarks as well as the letters themselves.
Gift of a Letter by Alexandra Stoddard is at once a personal essay on what letters mean to the author, an inspiration to the reader to write letters (with suggestions and tips), and a celebration of the world of letters, from history to ink to stationery. Short enough to read in an evening, though perhaps better read and pondered chapter by chapter, it's as relevant today, perhaps even more so, than when it was first published almost 20 years ago. A LEX Book-of-the-Month selection. Lexer recommended. From the author of Peter Rabbit and many other favorite children's tales comes Beatrix Potter's Letters. Some of the many letters included touch on the genesis of the books and illustrations, while others are concerned with her farm in the Lake District and her distress at the encroachment of development on the countryside. The book includes many illustrations, from tiny drawings accompanying the letters to rough drafts of illustrations that later appeared in her books. A LEX Book-of-the-Month selection.
For decades children's letters have been popular for their innocent directness and candor. From world justice to yo-yos, from supporting the nation's schools to declaring chocolate a vegetable, more than 200 letters from children to Barack Obama showcase the hopes, fears, and questions of American kids today in Kids' Letters to President Obama. Also available are Thanks and Have Fun Running the Country: Kids' Letters to President Obama, compiled from letters written by children at urban literacy centers. Join postman Anthony Paya as he takes the mail for a trip more than a mile down the Grand Canyon in this nicely illustrated children's book. Pastel and pencil drawings chronicle the three-hour journey of the only U.S. Mule Train Mail route. A portion of the proceeds from sales goes to the Havasupai Head Start program. A LEX Book-of-the-Month selection.
From Daughters to Mothers: I've Always Meant to Tell you features letters from over 75 famous women writers to their mothers (some alive, some departed), written especially for this book. If the physical aspect of writing letters appeals to you, you might want to check out Lisa Engelbrecht's Modern Mark Making: From Classic Calligraphy to Hip Hand-Lettering, a combination how-to book and celebration of the joy of lettering, with numerous step-by-step examples and tips on everything from mixing ink to using pens. In the words of the publisher: "The book demonstrates the uses of traditional and cutting edge lettering tools, from classic calligraphy pens to bling-producing metallic foils and glue pens. A large collection of gallery images provide further inspiration for how to use creative lettering in artwork." A LEX Book-of-the-Month selection.
Replies of over 30 American Presidents to children's letters are collected in Dear Young Friend: The Letters of American Presidents to Children" by Stanley and Rodelle Weintraub. From Queen Elizabeth I to Casanova to John Lennon, letters and other documents are collected, mostly in full-page reproductions with accompanying transcription and explanatory text, in True to the Letter: 800 Years of Remarkable Correspondence, Documents and Photographs by Pedro Correa Do Lago, President of the National Library of Brazil. Lexer recommended.

The Screwtape Letters by theologian (and Narnia author) C.S. Lewis began a tradition of religious entities writing letters; in the original the senior demon Screwtape gives advice to his up-and-coming nephew Wormwood on how to best tempt people away from the life. Contemporary versions include:

Not to be outdone, the good side has its own instructional correspondence in the form of The Gabriel Letters (Advice to a Young Angel) and The Return of Gabriel: The Gabriel Letters, Book II, More Advice to a Young Angel by Richard V. Shriver.

In contrast to the demons and angels in the books to the left, children's books often feature less cosmic non-human entities and their correspondence. Some examples:

  • Dear Peter Rabbit by Alma Flor Ada is an illustrated collection of the letters of Peter Rabbit, Goldilocks, Little Red Riding Hood and others, centered around a housewarming party for one of the Three Little Pigs.
  • In Dear Mrs. Larue: Letters From Obedience School, a dog named Ike writes to his owner about the horrible treatment he's receiving at the Igor Brotweiler Canine Academy, while illustrations reveal the true situation.
  • A sequel, Detective LaRue: Letters from the Investigation, has Ike wrongly accused of stealing cat treats and having to find the real perpetrator in order to clear himself.
  • In The T.F. Letters by Karen Ray, young Alex has just started losing her baby teeth, and her family is moving to another state. So with each tooth she puts under her pillow, she asks the Tooth Fairy for advice on coping with all the changes, and gets it – in penmanship surprisingly similar to her mother's...
  • Those yearly holiday letters aren't a new tradition; starting in the 1920s the jolly old elf himself sent The Father Christmas Letters to the children of J.R.R. Tolkien, discussing the year's news from the North Pole.
The Art of the Handwritten Note by Margaret Shepherd. Features helpful tips for everything "from overcoming illegible penmanship to mastering the challenge of keeping straight margins, avoiding smeared ink, and choosing stationery that is appropriate but suits your style". Lexer recommended. Write Out of the Oven!: Letters and Recipes from Children's Authors by Josephine Waltz collects letters from students to well-known children's authors, and a recipe from each author. Judy Blume, Philip Pullman, Natalie Babbitt, Brian Jacques, E.L. Konigsburg and about four dozen other authors took part.
Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children by Dorie McCullough Lawson. Three centuries of personal letters from 68 famous American men and women to their children, including Thomas Jefferson, Groucho Marx, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Woody Guthrie, and many more. Every Pitcher Tells a Story: Letters Gathered by a Devoted Fan collects 100 letters that Seth Swirsky (author of several similar books of letters from baseball players and fans) received from baseball pitchers he wrote to, as well as rare historical letters of famous pitchers.
Ever think it would be fun to write a really weird letter, such as telling a hotel you left your sword in their establishment, or asking a casino if you can gamble dressed in your lucky shrimp costume? Ted Nancy (widely believed to be a pseudonym for Jerry Seinfeld) did, and Letters From a Nut collects many of these and the usually straight replies they garnered. Other books are available in this series, as well as similarly comic efforts by Don Novello (who wrote as Lazlo Toth), James C. Wade, Paul Davidson, Sterling Huck, and Paul Rosa. Lexer recommended. Many accounts of life on the American frontier suggest drudgery, hardship and tragedy were unremitting companions. Elinore Pruitt Stewart shows a different facet as she writes an engrossing tale of life on a Wyoming ranch in a series of letters to her former city employer, Letters of a Woman Homesteader, first published in 1914.
Links to Project Gutenberg's etexts
While the letters from "Old Gorgon Graham" (see Issues 6, 7, and 8) are fiction, 150 years earlier Lord Chesterfield spent a quarter century writing real Letters To His Son On the Fine Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman. In the 18th century, Lady Mary Wortley Montague was widely considered to be a paragon of letter-writing. See if you agree by reading Letters of the Right Honourable Lady M--y W--y M--e Written during Her Travels in Europe, Asia and Africa to Persons of Distinction, Men of Letters, &c. in Different Parts of Europe.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, best known for the Sherlock Holmes canon, began his career as a doctor and became a writer while waiting for patients, who were not numerous. In The Stark Munro Letters, he presents a series of fictional letters which are widely believed to be at least partly autobiographical, dealing with his own views on medicine and religion, among other topics. Can't get enough of letters from Presidents? Check out Theodore Roosevelt's Letters to His Children.
Letters (except letters to the editor) are usually written with the hope and expectation of receiving a response. But the letter form lends itself to much more than that, as Andrew Lang's Letters to Dead Authors shows. Here are letters to deceased literary figures from the recent past and the distant past, including Jane Austen, Herodotus, Lord Byron, Edgar Allan Poe, and many others. Letters can be instructive as well as entertaining. Playwright Abraham Dreyfus asked about a dozen other playwrights for advice on "how a play is made", and in 1916 James Brander Matthews collected them into How to Write a Play. The advice ranges from a detailed discussion of the interplay between the audience and the content of the play, to the pithy (but not perhaps very helpful) "Have genius!"
Very early letters were often political directives or religious treatises using the letter form (as many books in the New Testament are), yet some also made time for the mundane. In Letters of Pliny the Younger one can find both, from "How ignominious then must his conduct be who turns good government into anarchy, and liberty into slavery?" to "Is the weather with you as rude and boisterous as it is with us?". In Volume 1 and Volume 2 of the Correspondence of Wagner and Liszt, the two composers discuss topics ranging from music to politics to philosophy, with a bit of daily life (especially monetary troubles) now and then as well.
Many of the earliest novels were written in the form of letters, and that tradition continues to the present. One example is Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther. Writing novels in the form of letters could make it easy for the author to contrast views on a topic, as Letters of Two Brides did for Honoré de Balzac.