Good old letter to Luke Skywalker by Stéfan on Flickr

Reading Other People’s Letters

Good old letter to Luke Skywalker by Stéfan on Flickr
Good old letter to Luke Skywalker by Stéfan on Flickr

This past weekend NPR’s Code Switch ran a piece I wrote about letters and Black history that you all may find very interesting. In it I suggest several collected letters books, mainly by African Americans, and talk about different ways of understanding and exploring history. I find letters to be one of the most valuable.

Reading other people’s letters inspires me to make my own more eloquent and engaging. Plus, I was never a regular letter writer when I was young, so I find myself in need of great examples of how good letters flow.

The other side of the coin is that reading letters from fabulous people can be seriously intimidating. Could I ever write a letter as beautiful as some of Emily Dickinson’s? As passionate as Anais Nin’s? Yipes.

I have to look at it the way I look at my fiction. Becoming a great writer is just as much about writing and writing and writing some more as it is about reading, reading, and oh look more reading. Samuel Delany says that a writer can only write a book as good as the last book they read. Continually feeding my brain good books makes me better able to write one. Same with letters.

Beyond improving your letter game, there is something wonderfully delicious in reading the private words of a public person. Getting a glimpse into their inner selves. It’s a bit voyeuristic, and I feel no shame in indulging!

In my NPR piece I restricted myself to letters relevant to Black history, but when I first started I was thinking about collections of letters in general. I got several great suggestions for collections across the spectrum and wanted to highlight several that I like or were suggested to me. Since I couldn’t get them all in that piece, I’m sharing them here.

Add your own favorite letters and collections in the comments!

2 thoughts on “Reading Other People’s Letters”

  1. Oh yes!!! I couldn’t agree with you more. In addition to being intimidated by the eloquence or passion of some of these peoples letters I am forever inspired/frightened by the quantity of letters people used to write!! I’ve read Empty without you and The Mitford book and they are always saying “it’s late, I need to go to sleep but I’ll just dash off four more letters first”. Eleanor wrote hundreds of thousands of letters, her uncle Teddy Roosevelt wrote over 40,000 letters, just while in office as the president!!! I always remind myself of that when I’m feeling like one letter a day is too much to handle. Another great book out last year is Floating Worlds – The letters of Edward Gorey and Peter Neumeyer. Oh the illustrated envelopes!

  2. Letters are personal aren’t they? Not private (although they can be) but personally from THAT person. The paper, the ink, the thoughts, the penmanship…. all of it is theirs, and they give it to you. It was once in their hands and now it’s in yours. —I find that both “style of presenting content” and the esthetic affect me. Very usually, in a good way. When time allows I really like to make me envelopes creative, and I find that what I received greatly influences what I create for the envelope in return (again, when time allows).

    So I think it’s a plus to receive & read other people’s letters. Not only can it improve you in some respects, but it is after all “communication” with one other person, instead of the entire online viral universe.

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