Reviews for To the Letter : A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing


Booklist Reviews 2013 November #2
*Starred Review* Garfield is a best-selling writer of irresistible enthusiasm. He has energetically and knowledgeably celebrated stamps (The Error World, 2008), typefaces (Just My Type, 2011), and maps (On the Map, 2012). Now he champions the infinitely expressive and influential tradition of letter writing. For centuries, Garfield observes, letters have been "the lubricant of human interaction and the free fall of ideas," and he presents many provocative examples, from letters written by the Romans in Britain two thousand years ago, establishing the conventions of "greetings and farewells," to the correspondence of Cicero, Madame de Svign, Virginia Woolf, and Jack Kerouac. Garfield covers the evolution of various postal services, tells curious tales about how letters end up in auction houses and libraries, contrasts letters and e-mails (a "hybrid between a letter and a phone call"), and ponders the challenges of maintaining digital archives. Threaded throughout is a suspenseful British WWII epistolary love story: the courtship-by-mail between post-office employees Chris Barker, serving in the Royal Air Force and stationed in Libya, Italy, and Greece, and Bessie Moore, transferred to the Foreign Office on the home front. Garfield's robust and propulsive engagement with letters as an essential embodiment of the human spirit and a driving cultural force makes for exciting reading and thoughtful speculation about the future of scholarship and communication. Copyright 2013 Booklist Reviews.

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BookPage Reviews 2013 December
Letter writing, an endangered species

Dear Simon Garfield,

I’m writing to tell you how delighted I was to read your new book, To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing. Your book artfully captures my appreciation for old-fashioned letter writing and my concerns for the future of the posted dispatch in this age of emails, texts and Tweets.

I am not one to criticize how we communicate in the digital age. I can’t tell you the last time I took out pen and paper, addressed an envelope, licked a stamp and walked a letter to the mailbox. But that is the point of your book. You gracefully summarize the theme with these words: “It is a book about what we have lost by replacing letters with email—the post, the envelope, a pen, a slower, cerebral whirring, the use of the whole of our hands and not just the tips of our fingers.”

Indeed, To the Letter is part history lesson, part sociological study, part forecast of the future. You explore the beginnings of letter writing, including the epistolary works of Cicero, Seneca and Pliny the Younger. You muse over the letters of Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Lewis Carroll and Virginia Woolf. You even devote space to the sad tale of Charlie Brown and how he never received a valentine in the mail.

Among the things I enjoyed the most about To the Letter were the photographs of important, quirky or sentimental letters written over time by the famous and not so famous, including a poignant series of letters between a World War II soldier and his sweetheart back home.

To the Letter has taught me to appreciate the thoughtful traditions of letter writing, and given me pause as I dash off my next email. I know that other readers will enjoy the book as much as I did. Perhaps they will be inspired to write you as well.

Your humble reviewer,
John T. Slania

Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.

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Kirkus Reviews 2013 October #2
A tribute to writing personal letters, courtesy of the widely curious Garfield (On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks, 2012, etc.). The author asks, "What else could bring back a world and an individual's role within it so directly, so intensely, so plainly and so irresistibly? Only letters." Garfield seeks to show readers the significance of this lost art. When there was conscious effort made to get things right the first time--especially with those prepaid airmail fold-ups--both the sender and the recipient received ample rewards (certainly more than through email). Throughout history, there have been countless exemplary letter writers, and Garfield covers much ground, from Roman centurions in B.C. Britain to Charles Schultz and Charlie Brown. All the while, the author maintains his sense of storytelling wonder, a diverting patter that allows the pages to slip past even as he examines how letters reveal motivation, deepen understanding, give evidence, change lives and rewrite history. The letters on display are as varied as a patchwork quilt--Aristotle, Seneca, Cicero, Erasmus ("Have you so completely rid yourself of all brotherly feeling, or has all thought of your Erasmus wholly fled your heart?"), Emily Dickinson (in her letter to literary critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson, she writes, "You speak of Mr. Whitman. I never read his book, but was told that it was disgraceful"), Keats, Kerouac, Heloise and Abelard, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Henry Miller and Anas Nin--but Garfield draws out their commonality and continuity. He also provides short detours along the way, introducing the postal system, stamps, drop boxes and that saddest of destinations, the dead-letter office. Katherine Mansfield once wrote to a friend, "This is not a letter but my arms around you for a brief moment." Garfield provides a fond, lovely reflection on the essence of that sentiment. Copyright Kirkus 2013 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

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Library Journal Reviews 2013 June #2

From love letters to letters of recommendation, from early letter writing manuals to the correspondence of famous folks ranging from Erasmus to Princess Diana, this work discusses the art of letter writing and its slow collapse in the Internet era. From the author of the beloved best seller Just My Type.

[Page 58]. (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

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Library Journal Reviews 2014 January #1

UK author Garfield (Just My Type) here pens an ode to a dying art, that of the handwritten letter. Having previously explored stamp collecting, maps, typography, and even the color mauve, he again crafts meticulous literary nonfiction that displays great zeal for an arguably obscure topic. His 15 chapters take readers from ancient Rome to the days of Henry VIII, from Jane Austen to Sylvia Plath and, in the final chapter, to the origins of our digital substitute for letter writing, email. Garfield includes numerous letters in their entirety. Those between a World War II-era couple particularly add interest and spice to the narrative. Readers should note that, in keeping with the theme, this is not a short read: the author takes a leisurely approach to his chronology of letters and their writers. Where other titles on this topic tend to focus on a certain subject (e.g., war letters, love letters) or a sole pair of correspondents, Garfield's book is a celebration of the entire genre, whose decline will be seen by readers as a true loss. VERDICT A solid choice for fans of microhistories, paper trails, or epistolary works. [Prepub Alert, 6/15/13]--Stacey Rae Brownlie, Harrisburg Area Community Coll. Lib., Lancaster, PA

[Page 119]. (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

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