On Letter Writing

If we stop writing letters, who will keep our history or dare venture upon a biography?
Roger Angell

Before me sits a three page, typed letter plus an essay the writer included in her mailing. I have never met this person and it is unlikely I ever will, as she lives on the other side of the country in a remote New England village and is no longer doing any traveling. I am about to write a reply, quite similar in kind and no doubt will include one or two recent pieces I’ve written.

We have been sending letters back and forth like this for over five years. We discuss the books we are reading and mention a few notable passages from them. We discuss our writings and recent reflections on all matter of things. Rarely do we talk much about ourselves, although inevitably that intrudes. The letters are pretty serious stuff.

In her latest letter, she discusses Proust’s views on the suffering involved in writing a novel, a new book she is writing, and what Sholem Aleichem said about wisdom. “Life is a dream for the wise, a game for the fool, a comedy for the rich, a tragedy for the poor.” etc.

I “met” the letter writer while conducting a survey of individuals who keep a commonplace book. Her returned questionnaire was the most stimulating and detailed of any in the sample. There were many issues I wanted to know more about and I was led to write her a letter in reply.

We have maintained our correspondence ever since. She does not use e-mail, believes it leads to much mischief and our friendship is not of the sort that calls forth a telephone call on occasion. Besides, she is dedicated to preserving the fine and lost art of letter writing, a practice she often refers to as “one of the good old ways.”

I learn a great deal from her musings. Not long ago I sent her a book I had written. Because her eyesight is gradually failing, she asked her husband to read a few pages to her each evening. After finishing the volume, she wrote to me:

Your book, [her husband] says, ought to be read by every thinking person on the planet. I enthusiastically agree…Since completing the reading of A Literary Collage, one of us still asks the other, “Do you miss reading Katzev’s book?” Invariably the answer is a wistful Yes.

This amazed me. Never before have I heard anything like it. I have few readers anyway, but this! This was surely the most remarkable.

I miss the days when there was a personal letter or two in my mailbox every day. Don’t you feel the same? In the belief that it would be nice to get a letter in the mailbox once in a while, the literary website, “The Rumpus” recently announced a subscription ($5 a month) which will send a “author-penned letter a week, delivered to mailboxes rather than inboxes.”

The founder of the notion said: “I got this urge to get back to sending paper letters and I also knew a lot of authors who I knew would be really excited about it.” As of last month the following letter-writers have agreed to participate—Dave Eggers, Stephen Elliott, Nick Flynn, Margaret Cho, Tao Lin and Jonathan Ames.

Ever since I heard about the project I have been betwixt and between about taking out a subscription. It isn’t the $5. Rather, it just seems a bit phony. I don’t know any of these writers and of course they don’t know me, so there’s little common ground between us.

For now I’ve concluded I am not that desperate for a letter in the mailbox. Besides, I have the pleasure of waiting for the next gem from my letter-writing friend in the East.