To the Letter by Simon Garfield

Loving that letterbox

Historian Bill Nasson reviews Simon Garfield's exquisite homage and history of letter-writing


In 1967, an American pop and soul band called The Box Tops had a huge hit witha catchy song, “My Baby Wrote Me A Letter”, in which those blue-eyed Memphis boys knew that it would mean, “lonely days are gone”. Three years later saw the publication of Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road, a book (and later a play and a film) which documented an actual twenty-year airmail correspondence between a New York bibliophile and an English second-hand bookseller in London. Extraordinarily touching, it is a gentle portrait of a subtle love affair between two people who never ever met. Yet, they nonetheless found themselves bound together by a mutual love of books and of reading, and by a compulsive need to immerse themselves in what Simon Garfield describes as “a lost world” – one of love and affection crafted and sustained by the constant exchange of revealing letters. For it is on those acutely personal pages, as the author suggests at the end of his enthralling new book, that “we recognise ourselves”.

It is no surprise to find 84 Charing Cross Road cited among this book’s dazzling spread of literary and historical references. The lesson of Simon Garfield’s To The Letter: A Journey Through a Vanishing World is that if a price of progress is the accelerating decline and abandonment of real letters, it will be “an immeasurable defeat” of one of the most grand and ancient traditions of human connection. Anyone who reads this poignant and nostalgic journey through the emotional storehouse of the old-fashioned personal mail will surely find it hard not to succumb to its powerful message. Granted, a current digitalised world of online chat and webcams may be quick and convenient. Who would want to hang on to what has become mocked as snail-mail?

Garfield recognises this, assuring the reader at the start that his is not an anti-email rant, even less an anti-progress book. What, after all, would be the point of that? Instead, steeped in a mixture of nostalgia and longing, the author’s latest book is a witty kind of praise-poem to the tingling possibilities of the post or the constantly-renewable romance of the mail. Does anyone, the author asks rhetorically, ever glow at the prospect of opening an email folder? By the nature of their medium, emails poke at you mechanically, whereas letters are an enveloping caress, even those which sting. Moreover, the hoardings of shoeboxeswill stick around unlike inboxes, their written letters intrinsic proof of our emotional existence. If forgotten, they are forgotten only to be newly-discovered or to be found after we have gone, not only by our descendants but also, perhaps, by curious historians. After all, what else but a letter can conjure up a world and reveal an individual’s place within it so plainly and expressively?

In other words, whatever the enchantments of a pixellated human condition, it is still surely not a patch on “a larger life” that has been lost, that of running to catch the last post, the design richness of stamps, the pen, the feathery feel of airmail notepaper, the happy imaginative sound of a thank-you note (a soft and appreciative burp), the finality of sealing the manila envelope. If anything, letter-writing amounts to even more. For, as the author’s celebration of postal correspondence emphasises, it is about the value that is placed on literacy and the gradual composition of thought. Moreover, in Simon Garfield’s own words, what raises letter-writing far above other kinds of written communication is its mental and physical enactment. There, in a quiet and intense theatre of the self, we fold ourselves into “a slower cerebral whirring, the use of the whole of our hands and not just the tips of our fingers”.

In To The Letter this author (who has also penned Just My Type and On the Map, amongst others) is again on cracking form. Quirky, ironic, amusing and always wearing his learning lightly, Simon Garfield’s tone is inviting. Joining him as a fellow-traveller, the reader is taken on an enthralling trip. Part history, part eccentricity, part linguistic and part philosophical reflection, it is an excursion to the far and varied outposts of the magical empire of individual or personalised letters. Starting with the papyrus era of the Romans, the world’s first real letter-writers, it ends in the present, with extinction in sight. The last delivered letter may well appear in our lifetime, like the last hair to turn white or the last dance by Jacob Zuma in those leopard-skin accessories.

The self-regarding cuteness of, we need hardly be told, is a pretty poor substitute for the edgy Virginia Woolf enchanting Clive Bell in 1909. Along the way, we are treated, among much else, to delicious digressions on a vast gallery of Garfield’s pet pen-pushing characters, from Henry VIII to John Keats to Jack Kerouac. The constant sense that their letters are their lives is what gives this exuberant book its lingering fascination. Its author ends with a letter to a friend from the 19th Century New Zealand writer, Katherine Mansfield: “This is not a letter but my arms around you for a brief moment.” Is there anything more to be said?

To the Letter is published by Canongate and is available from

Bill Nasson is Professor of History at the University of Stellenbosch. His most recent book, co-edited with Albert Grundlingh, is The War Comes Home: Women and Families in the Anglo-Boer War published in 2013 by Tafelberg.



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