Home Book Reviews Letters of Note: Shaun Usher

Letters of Note: Shaun Usher

by John Maguire
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Letters of Note review book cover
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Who is it that writes these days? We all send emails, text messages, tweets and status updates on social media and become digital Pavlovian dogs, jumping each time the phone beeps. Personal mail, correspondence, notes and invitations are becoming increasingly rare. Yes, we still get post, but it’s hardly letters of note, instead it is offering to let us drown further in debt or insure our lives for just a small cost and the promise of a free pen to sign your soul away with.

Have you had an accident?
Perhaps you can sue?

The blame claim is now seen as more of a natural way to invest than stocks and shares…

It really bothers me that people do not put pen to paper. I try and send a postcard or a letter to my inner circle of friends on monthly basis and if I have been to a social occasion, dinner etc., I will endeavour to send a thank you, as gratitude pays. Writing letters is almost a little meditation and can help you make sense of your thoughts. There is nothing quite like the sound of pen or pencil to blank piece of paper. It also serves to continually add cement to a wall of friendship. My dear friends always return the favour and send articles, books etc., and always unexpected surprises. Whilst studying mindfulness, for example, a gift of The Ladybird Book of Mindfulness (Ladybirds for Grown-Ups) really helped me to balance the theory with a good dose of practical humour.

Another gift sent from a close friend is a book I will treasure for life and think every home should own: LETTERS OF NOTE as compiled by Shaun Usher. As the publisher boldly states, it is:

A collection of over one hundred of the world’s most inspiring and entertaining letters, based on the seismically popular website, Letters of Note. A site that has had over 70 million people access it.

Historical letters, wishes of peace, advice, tragedy, invention, Hollywood scandal, literature, social consciousness, mental health – all are covered in this delicious volume.

What is pleasurable is to see the whole range of human emotion on display, people from many different walks of life revealing their thoughts on paper. The varied expressions of the mind reveal something that is intimate, personal and human. I wonder whether in many decades to come social media, particularly status alerts, will be under scrutiny in a similar way, revealing a snapshot of a human soul that has existed and passed through this mortal coil.

My personal favourites:

  • A Letter to George Lusk from Jack the Ripper, October 1888 From Hell.

This note is most disturbing as it allows a glance into the fractured mind of this psychotic killer. I think it also has put me off eating kidneys for life!

  • Virginia Woolf’s suicide note in March 1941 to husband Leonard, ‘I can’t fight any longer.’

As we understand the tragedy of Woolf’s battle with mental illness, this expression is all the more upsetting as it shows a vulnerable soul totally lost. A feeling that we can all at some part of our lives relate to.

  • Roald Dahl responding to seven-year-old Amy Corcoran who sent him a combination of oil, coloured water and glitter. One of her dreams to thank him for penning her favourite story, The BFG.

This lovely letter indicates the imaginative bewilderment and joy that helped to fuel the imagination of Dahl, his awareness and total respect for his readership of children.

  • In typical Hollywood bitchery, Bette Davis lambastes her daughter in 1987. The icon had suffered breast cancer and a number of strokes. Her scathing letter at the end of her memoirs criticises her daughter who wrote a malignant book about her supposedly troubled relationship with her Mother. ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.’

I find that this type of Hollywood icon, a symbol of complete resilience, is something we rarely see now. A lady with sass-itude, glamour and complete control so that even when her body started to let her down, the energy and soul was still a-blazing.

  • A communication composed by author, diplomat, politician, musician and a founding father of the United States, Mr. Benjamin Franklin. Dated 1784, the correspondence discusses a concept of which debtors are encouraged to repay their loans not to the original lender but rather to others of similar need along with similar instructions for repayment, thus creating a chain of goodwill that spreads through society. At the tie of writing this philosophy was nameless but we now refer to it as ‘paying it forward.’

Here we see an example of great mind thinking well ahead of his time.

  • A letter of advice from F Scott Fitzgerald to his child Scottie in 1933, an inventory of life lessons, a literary version of the Bowie track KOOKs. The note includes: things to worry about: worry about courage, things not to worry about: don’t worry about popular opinion, things to think about: what am I really aiming at?

As we understand with hindsight the battle Fitzgerald had with addiction, this personal and tender moment is all the more telling, as it reveals his fears that his daughter will become corroded by the world. It also shows an acute awareness of the things that can cause upset in life. As with many writers, he displays the quality of being able to give good advice but not necessarily take it himself!

  • A plea to Adolf Hitler from Gandhi, a clear and concise request to avoid war, ‘for the sake of humanity.’

This shows the absolute conviction in Gandhi’s own philosophical belief in being the change you want to see in the world. A man of peace trying to reason with a madman.

Letters of Note is one book that I consistently return to, as it is a tapestry of our shared histories, emotions and experiences. All that make up the experience of being human. Perhaps dipping into this marvellous resource of material may encourage you to compose your own letter. I can assure you drafting, sending and receiving a handwritten piece of correspondence can put a smile on the recipient’s face in a way a techno one cannot. Give yourself the pleasure of penning three letters, notes, cards to friends this week and resist the electronic mail format.  Choose the snail mail and see what letters of note you get back!

UK readers can buy a copy of Letters of Note from an independent bookshop near you via this affiliate link. This site may earn a small commission if you do.

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