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Blog > Book Review: To the Letter


When I posted my last review, I promised the next would be about Emmi Itäranta’s The Moonday Letters. I still plan to review that novel, but in honor of Letter Writing Month last month, I thought I’d pause for a moment and review the book I just finished: Simon Garfield’s To The Letter: A Curious History of Correspondence.

Cover of To the Letter

Garfield’s history opens with a story about the writer, and about his interest in a particular set of historical letters being auctioned off, but from there it goes all over the place. It discusses the Roman letters found at Vindolanda, the developing tradition of letters in Rome, and surveys history through discussing famous correspondents from Madame de Sévigné to Ted Hughes, and discussing how society reacted to letter-writing (such as the letter-writing manuals so common at one time).

Cover of My Dear Bessie

Interspersed between each chapter, though, is my favourite part: a series of letters between a soldier named Chris and a woman back home named Bessie, written during the Second World War. Through their letters you come to know them, and even with such a small fraction of their letters included, you come to feel for them as they fall in love, and hope they managed to overcome the odds. The letters are a beautiful example of the power of letters to reveal character and allow someone to bare their heart, and I’m excited to discover now that there is a full volume of them available, My Dear Bessie.

Garfield makes this power clear as well, picking out passages from the other letters he discusses to highlight his points. One part that stuck out to me was the discussion of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, through Hughes’ own letters. (As a warning, though, that chapter can be quite upsetting, given the circumstances of Plath’s death, and given Hughes’ emotions about it as expressed in his letters.)

The whole thing made me wonder what my letters say about me, to be honest! I’ve always written letters here and there, and at the moment I write to my grandmother every week. It made me want to work a little more at it, and see if I can make my letters as lively as some of the examples here.

To the Letter was definitely an enjoyable read for me; I was more interested in some of the famous letter-writers discussed than others, admittedly, but Garfield’s enthusiasm for letter-writing—and for peeking in at the lives of people as revealed by their letters—is infectious. It’s a bit of a chunky book, but it flew by—especially with Chris and Bessie’s letters with each chapter, and wanting to know how things ended for them!

Next time, I promise, I’ll take a look at The Moonday Letters—before I forget the whole book, since it’s been a while since I read it! And in the meantime, don’t forget you can tell me about books about letters (fiction or non-fiction) in this topic on the forum (you may need to browse the forums a little before you can post in it, though!).


15 comments so far

Nique, Canada
Love love love reading book reviews/recommendations. Thank you for these!!
justylev, United States of America
A great review and a book I will read. I met a great pen pal on post crossing 10 years ago and after our long correspondence we are meeting in her home in Germany! The power of the pen!’!!!
EmmaGodfri, Russia
Now i know what i want to read! Thank you for this interesting post!
NanaPam, United States of America
Thank you for the book review- I always love a good to read. Your time and review is appreciated.
Pacomole, France
Thank you for this description of an attractive book.
The power of words, the little story of strangers mixed with the History of the world make you want to dive into this book.
kpwick, United States of America
I too love book reviews and recommendations!!! I hope many more to follow!!
Edmonds, United States of America
I haven't been an active member for a while now yet still get emails from Postcrossing. Thank you very much! Just now I saw reference to Simon Garfield and thought why does that name sound familiar. Then I remembered just last week or so I read Just My Type, A Book about Fonts by Simon Garfield! What a fun book. Since I always want to read a second book by an author either of the two books mentioned here -- To the Letter and/or Dear Bessie will do just fine. Makes me want to officially rejoin this amazing group!
Seracker, Singapore
I love this book so much I've re-read it a couple of times and also bought it ;)

Such a lovely read. I also enjoyed Shaun Usher's Letters of Note very much
Indreni, United States of America
Going to look into all of these titles!!!
cjf3848, United States of America
Thanks for the review! So interesting!
Flippie, Canada
Thank you fo sharing this news with us...
HopeWillGoPlaces, Philippines
Thanks for sharing this review. I added the two books on my Goodreads account. My favorite book about letters is Lemony Snicket's The Beatrice Letters.
Demmi, Romania
Thank you for this interesting post!
Happy Postally Readings!
:) :D
beesknees, United States of America
looks like I will be heading off to the bookstore..............................
LookOutKid, Germany
Thank you for this interesting review. I think my next book is from Simon Garfield …🙂 I have another hint for you: I have read a book about the stories of messages in a bottle, the very first form of postcrossing 😉 It starts with the first known message in the year 1864. Every time there were people, who gathered these messages and researched about the writers. A lot of these letters you can find in museums, f.e. at Hamburg. The book explains some letters, where they are found, in context to the history, what kind of ships could transport these messages, something about the passengers and so on. For me this book is very interesting. But I don‘t know, if it is accessible in englisch, here it is in german:
Wolfgang Struck, Flaschenpost: Ferne Botschaften, Frühe Vermessungen und ein legendäres Experiment
ISBN 978-3-86648-673-7
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