Letters have to pass two tests before they can be classed as good: they must express the personality both of the writer and of the recipient.” – EM Forster


I love letters. I love writing them. I love receiving them. I really appreciate a good letter: you can tell so much from it, from the style of writing, the language, quality of the paper, even the pen that’s been used to write it. And, in this age of all things digital, there is no greater pleasure for me than the sight of a heavy-weighted envelope with handwritten script lying on letters of note reviewndexmy doormat. This passion, I’m pretty sure, dates back to my childhood, when I would watch anxiously as my mother hovered by the front door to catch the postman. All was well with the world, if there were a few exotically stamped, cardamon-scented letters in amongst the bills; and if there weren’t – well, the world was not a truly happy place.

When I stumbled across Shaun Usher‘s site, Letters of Note, a few years back, after reading a letter by Iggy Pop to a fan, I loved it: it was – and is – my kind of site. I’ve religiously followed it since then, often retweeting or commenting on the wealth of material Usher has discovered, letters that might otherwise have gone unread by modern audiences – and what a waste that would be. I have to be honest though – I like a good site, but I love a good book more and I was absolutely delighted when Usher announced he was compiling a volume of cherished missives for Canongate.

When I received the book – and I bought it as a present for someone who I thought would love it – I have to admit to being slightly disappointed. I hasten to add that this disappointment lies NOT in the content, which is interesting, varied, poignant, funny and occasionally brilliant, but in the physical product itself. I believe covers and good design sell books, particularly expensive ones, but in this case I would say don’t judge the book by its cover –  or by its design.

The content of this book is, without a doubt, excellent. It’s a very free volume in terms of content and arrangement, something that some people may find frustrating, but I like. There’s no rhyme or reason to the order and no explanation as to why a letter like an October 1888 note (No. 002) from Jack the Ripper, accompanying half a ‘Kidne’, should nestle between a 1960 missive from Elizabeth II to then US President Dwight D. Eisenhower (No. 001) and a 1973 response from EB White to a Mr Nadeau (No. 003). This order, or lack of, does make Letters of Note very much a dip-in, dip-out kind of the book, which I can only presume is Usher’s – or his publisher’s – intention. In many ways, it’s the ultimate coffee table tome, a fact supported by the large hardback and, in my humble opinion, rather unwieldy format. I would have preferred something more beautiful, with heavier weight paper or, to be quite frank, something that was slightly more portable.

Minor gripes aside, the content is lovely. Some correspondence I was already familiar with – such as Virginia Woolf’s last letter to her husband, Leonard (No. 010, March 1941), written before she went to drown herself. Even rereading it years later, it is still heartbreaking, yet hauntingly beautiful in its simplicity. Others, such as the lovely response from Roald Dahl to seven-year-old Amy, who had sent him a letter along with a dream in a bottle, are new to me and I found quite joyous (No. 016, 10 February 1989) – and others still, like Lady Shigenari’s farewell to her husband, samurai Kimura Shigenari, whom she knows will likely be killed in battle, I didn’t know, but was extremely touched to read.

‘…I have resolved to take the ultimate step, while you are still alive. I shall be waiting for you at the end of what they call the road to death‘, she wrote.

Reading this, almost 400 years after Lady Shigenari originally wrote it, her words are still very poignant, perhaps more so when one knows that by the time the samurai was killed, his wife had already taken her life (No. 029, 1615).

This is an eclectic volume and one that is an utter joy to delve into. Where else would you be able to catch up with famous people as wide-ranging as musicians Louis Armstrong and Nick Cave, writers Mario Puzo and Rebecca West, historic figures Galileo Galilei and Amelia Earhart and actors Alec Guinness and Bette Davis, all expressing their views in their own immortal words, often with such heart-felt honesty?  That said, I just wish the look and feel of this book enhanced this absolute treasure trove of correspondence rather than, in some cases, I feel, making it difficult to concentrate on the text or the facsimiles and detracting from the letters themselves. And I type this with so very many great Canongate books on my shelves, books whose designs are groundbreaking and quite often beautiful.

I look forward to the Lists of Note book, Usher is currently compiling. I only hope that whoever publishes it does think about the design and feel of the final product. In this age of increasingly expensive print books, with so much going straight to digital, both are so important to the reader. I also hope this is the first of many letter books compiled by Usher.

In sum, read this book and, if you can’t justify spending £30 on it, visit the Letters of Note site. I promise you won’t be disappointed – delighted, enthralled, captivated, moved to tears, but certainly not disappointed.

Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience, compiled by Shaun Usher. Published by Canongate, October 2013.



Also of interest: Poems That Make Grown Men Cry – the power of a good poem‘;  ‘Letters from the heart – our Top 20 love letters’


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