Adventures of an Information Addict


Karyn Gerhard is a senior editor at Alpha Books and an information addict looking for an adventure. This blog documents her explorations into of all those dusty corners of human culture that no one has bothered to clean in years.

Today’s Obsession: Letter Writing

I have a great Deal of Leisure, which I chiefly employ in Scribbling, that my Mind may not stand still or run back like my Fortunes. —John Adams

Here we are at the beginning of another year, which of course means it’s resolution time. I usually don’t go in for making resolutions—saving money, losing weight, getting organized, you name it, by February 1st I’ve fallen off the wagon, usually in spectacular fashion. Still, I’ve made a resolution for this year, and I’m actually optimistic about being able to keep it.

Over the holidays I was going through an old scrapbook and came across a letter that was sent to me by a friend when I first moved to New York. Opening that letter took me right back to that hovel on 86th Street in 1986; I remembered how excited I was as I tore open the envelope; the feeling of the whole world melting away as I settled in to read the letter; racing through it at lightning speed; then reading it again, slower, to savor it. Seeing that old letter got me thinking, not only about keeping in touch with people, but about how much I love handwritten cards and letters. There is something about a person sitting down and putting pen to paper for you that is so touching; not only that, letters bring back memories in a way that not even pictures can. And there is something special about the handwriting itself—almost as if it's a handmade gift. So I decided my resolution would be to not only stay in closer touch with my friends and family, but to bring letter writing back into vogue. A bit of a herculean task, I’ll grant you that, but hey, what’s a resolution without challenges?

There’s no doubt about it, letter writing is becoming a lost art. Technology has pretty much turned us into shorthand experts; worse yet, it has turned handwriting into the Betamax of this generation. I was floored to learn that many schools aren’t even teaching cursive; the Wall Street Journal even reported that the class of 2014 at Beloit College can’t write in cursive because they either never learned or never had the chance to practice it. Criminy, how can people even write their signature if they don’t learn cursive?

But that’s a battle for another day. Back to my resolution!

Bright and early on New Year's day I went out and bought a good pen and some nice stationery, then sat down at my kitchen table to start making good on my resolution. But how on earth do I start? Can you remember the last time you wrote a letter? Other than my grocery list and a few thank-you notes, I haven’t written a letter since, geez, college, I think. (I went to college in the dark ages when email was just a glint in Ray Tomlinson’s eye* and Ma Bell was still charging an arm and a leg for a long-distance phone call.) After an hour all I had written was: “Dear ----: Hi! How are you? It’s been a long time.”

Great googly moogly, I sounded like a third-grader. This was going to be harder than I thought.

I needed some inspiration—love letters full of great prose, hilarious memos, philosophic missives full of deep thoughts, post-it notes with quotes from Ghandi—anything to help get me started. So off I went to find some examples of great letter writing.

My first stop was Letters of Note, an amazing blog that presents letters from the famous, infamous, obscure, and sometimes just hilarious (take a look at the Tiger Oil memos if you want a really good laugh). I spent hours reading letters by everyone from Walt Disney to Iggy Pop, and each one was better than the last. (As an aside, take a look at the blogger’s other website, Letterheady, which showcases letterheads used by everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Richard Simmons. I’m tempted to steal Ray Bradbury’s just for the graphic.)

My search for inspiration led me to some pretty amazing letters:

I found so many others—letters by Mozart, Queen Victoria, World War II soldiers—but my favorite find was the letter archive of Stan Laurel (of Laurel and Hardy). Besides being a great comedian, he was a prolific correspondent; he wrote contracts, letters to fans, production notes, you name it. It was amazing to read his entire life in letter form, from his beginnings in Hollywood during the silent era to the end of his life when people were coming out of the woodwork to interview him about the old days.

So now I had the inspiration; all I had to do was figure out how to construct my letter. Leave it to Emily Post to give sound advice on how to begin and end a letter, and on what makes for good content. Although written in 1922, her piece on letter etiquette hasn’t lost any of its relevance, and the section on “Letters No One Cares to Read” is absolutely priceless.

Armed with all of this inspiration and information, I sat down and wrote my first letters; I have to say, they’re not half bad! Now all I need to do is buy stamps. Does anyone know how much a stamp is these days…?

* Ok, so that’s not exactly true. Tomlinson invented email in 1971, when I was just a wee toddler.

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