Letter writing is no longer a way of life. We have lost a way of thinkingby Vivian Gornick / May 22, 2013 / Leave a comment
Calvino’s letters reflect his rich imagination and engagement with the world (© Getty Images)
The Selected Letters of Willa Cather eds. Andrew Jewell & Janis Stout (Knopf, £25)
Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985 ed. Michael Wood (Princeton, £27.95)
Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011 by JM Coetzee and Paul Auster (Faber, £20)
When I was young, in the 1950s, everyone wrote letters. The schoolteacher, the insurance agent, the social worker; the businessman who read, the lawyer who travelled; my romantic mother, our no-nonsense neighbour: all conducted an often large and varied correspondence. It was the accustomed way for ordinarily educated people to occupy the world beyond one’s own small part of it.
My friends and I were devoted to reading letters as well as writing them. Receiving a letter was an excitement. Almost as soon as you’d finished reading the letter you’d start framing the sentences in your head that you’d be committing to paper when, in a day or two, you sat down to write your reply.
I treasured these hours between the time I got a letter and the time I answered it. I loved ordering my thoughts, deciding on my agenda. What did I want to say and in what order would I say it? How would I arrange fact and impression to let my friend know how things were with me: describe a mood, pass on gossip, think expressively about a book or an event? In short: deliver the kind of information one might get from a story not a memo.
I have before me three volumes of letters written by four distinguished writers. One is the selected letters of Willa Cather; the second, those of Italo Calvino; the third, a four year correspondence between Paul Auster and JM Coetzee. The first two books belong to the world of my youth, the third to that of the present. Together they show both the distinct pleasures that the best letter writing can provide, and the collective loss that our culture has suffered in the transition from traditional written communication to its instant, electronic form.
Willa Cather was born in 1873 and grew up in Red Cloud, Nebraska; there she developed the deep and abiding love for the land and its immigrant settlers that became the motive force behind an unbroken flow of novels, stories, and essays that, over…