To the Letter UK Book Cover To the Letter US Book Cover

Letters have the power to grant us a larger life. They reveal motivation and deepen understanding. They are evidential. They change lives, and they rewire history. The world once used to run upon their transmission the lubricant of human interaction and the freefall of ideas, the silent conduit of the worthy and the incidental, the time we were coming for dinner, the account of our marvellous day, the weightiest joys and sorrows of love. It must have seemed impossible that their worth would ever be taken for granted or swept aside. A world without letters would surely be a world without oxygen.

And now here we are.

To the Letter examines a practice that has dictated and tracked the progress of civilization for more than five hundred years. The book celebrates the intrinsic integrity of letters that is lacking from other forms of written communication. From Roman wood chips discovered near Hadrian's Wall to the wonders and terrors of email, Ive tried to explore how we have written to each other over the centuries and what our letters reveal about our lives. I consider the role that letters have played as a literary device in Shakespeare and the epistolary novel, and I consider some of the great correspondences of our time -- Cicero and Petrarch, Jane Austen and Ted Hughes (and John Keats, Virginia Woolf, Jack Kerouac, Anas Nin and Charles Schulz). And then there's Emily Dickinson, Pliny the Younger, Napoleon and Nelson, Madame de Sevigne, Lord Chesterfield, Manet and Magritte, Albert Einstein, Sylvia Plath, and a magician named Val Walker who invented a trick called The Radium Girl.

The book also examines the very particular advice offered by bestselling letter-writing manuals, the tricky history of the opening greeting, the ideal ingredients for invisible ink, and the sad saga of the dead letter office. As the book unfolds, so does the story of a moving wartime correspondence that shows how letters can change the course of life.

At a time when the decline of letter writing appears to be irreversible, To the Letter is a rallying cry to put pen to paper and create a form of expression, emotion, and tactile delight we may clasp to our heart.

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