Academia / Letters

What happens to the un-notable letters?

The short profile in the New Yorker online of epistolary blog Letters of Note makes clear both the totemic status letters hold in our current media moment, and how aberrant an interesting standalone letter is. The blog features mainly celebrity letters and each one has to hold the reader’s interest (the most interesting have also now been collected into a book). The letter represents a form of communication thought to be dead or dying, re-vivified through both the Internet and the printed book.

Key quotes:

[Editor Shaun] Usher has an evident knack for selecting letters that land with the force of a good short story, with personalities and dramatic arcs emerging swiftly, from just a page or two. Many of the writers are famous people, caught in a moment of accessibility and rawness or off-the-cuff virtuosity.

The idea behind the Letters of Note project—that correspondence holds a rare communicative and aesthetic power—also happens to be well calibrated for the Internet. It hits on a juncture of Pinterest-style object nostalgia, an appetite for emotive but bite-size reading, and a mild voyeurism.

Usher points out the irony that “the very service that’s going to kill off letter writing” is responsible for bringing these missives before so many eyes.

While Usher, and likely many of the blog’s readers, believe that handwritten letters offer a special form of communication separate from email (letters typed on a typewriter, another focus of “Pinterest-style object nostalgia,” constituting an in-between case), what the blog really shows is how much letter writing anticipates our current transitional moment. Usher combs through dozens of letters, and rejects many submissions, in order to find those that merit individual attention. Most letters were of the mundane, straightforward, and, in that way, revealing vein of our common email communications.

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