The Spell of Letters

The pleasures of reading other people’s mail.

James Mustich
Apr 10 · 7 min read

We have our eyes on our phones nearly all the time these days, and for much of that time we’re reading something. Nonetheless, many of us still speak of the need to find more time to read, by which we mean a different kind of engagement of attention, a more extended engagement with the written word. Without getting into the qualitative differences between reading on screen or page, or between the sensational flavors of newsfeeds versus the more extended nourishment of longer forms, or the profound neurological distinctions literacy scholars have discovered between digital and deep reading, we can say we turn to books to recharge some aspect of our wakefulness.

Nevertheless, too much of our sense of the joy of reading is bound by books. What I mean is that we think of our reading life, naturally enough, in terms of volumes, when the pleasure we seek is often independent of plot and chapter or extended argument. At the end of the day, I often long not for the promise of a fully-imagined work but for the simpler rewards of the kind of privacy that dwells between any lines I’m lost in; I just want to read, regardless of where the reading leads. I’ve found that one of the best satisfactions for this desire is delving into other people’s mail, and while plenty of splendid collections of letters exist, the most engaging postal eavesdropping, by my lights, is enjoyed when both sides of a correspondence are presented in a kind of polite ping-pong of heart and mind. Here’s a list of a few favorites.

84, Charing Cross Road

Helene Hanff

Being a bookseller, I’ll start with this small volume documenting her two-decade transatlantic colloquy with Frank P. Doel of the Marks & Co. bookshop in London. It begins in October 1949, with an inquiry that Helene Hanff, a freelance writer in New York, posts to Marks & Co., a bookshop at 84, Charing Cross Road, London. The reply, noting that the volumes requested have been shipped under separate cover, is politely British, addressed “Dear Madam” and signed with the initials FPD. “I hope ‘madam’ doesn’t mean over there what is does over here,” Hanff writes when she pays her bill, and the correspondence is launched. As she pursues her idiosyncratic education in English literature secondhand through the book-finding expertise of Mr. Doel and his colleagues, the reader is treated to a funny, affectionate tale of unexpected friendship.

I Send You This Cadmium Red . . .

A Correspondence between John Berger & John Christie

This striking, beautiful, large, and offbeat volume presents a conversation — in letters, postcards, drawings, paintings, and other art works — between the novelist, essayist, and art critic John Berger and the filmmaker and artist John Christie. An examination of the matter and meaning of color and much else (perception, emotion, expression, etc.) that falls under color’s bright sun, the friends’ playful, intellectually and aesthetically stimulating missives to one another invite any willing reader into the circle of creative thinking they describe.

The Happiness of Getting It Down Right

Letters of Frank O’Connor & William Maxwell

Twenty years (1945–1966) of letters between a modern Irish master of the short story (O’Connor) and his editor at The New Yorker (Maxwell), also an accomplished novelist. As the epistles progress from formality to fondness, from the texts at hand to the contexts of the heart, the reader recognizes in the writers’ shared attention to expression a kind of faith, a fierce commitment to the palpable mysteries of experience. Their correspondence is inspiriting, clever and wise, life­ enhancing. What starts as a book about words and writing grows into one about friendship and families, and it exudes all kinds of joy, not least, of course, “the happiness of getting it down right.” (The collection is splendidly edited and introduced — as is the Maxwell-Sylvia Townsend Warner correspondence noted below — by Michael Steinman, and its original hardcover edition is especially beautifully designed, a joy to hold and read.)

The Element of Lavishness

Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner & William Maxwell, 1938–1978

During William Maxwell’s tenure as fiction editor of The New Yorker, one of his favorite and most frequently published authors was Sylvia Townsend Warner, whose stories became a staple of the periodical. Maxwell and Warner’s happy and profound literary friendship is chronicled in their copious correspondence, collected here in a feast of intelligence and expression that will delight any devoted reader — even one unfamiliar with the fiction of the two authors. From descriptions of hurricanes, blackouts, and other dramatic occurrences to accountings of mundane matters of domestic aggravation, from rites of private passage to painstaking tinkerings with the nuts and bolts of literary work, this marvelous volume offers an extraordinary testament to the powers and passions of the written word. (For more of Maxwell’s letter-writing genius, see What There Is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell.)

Two Gardeners: A Friendship in Letters

Elizabeth Lawrence & Katharine S. White

Raleigh, North Carolina’s Elizabeth Lawrence (1904–1985), has been called “the Jane Austen of the gardening literary world,” but her amiable graciousness and respect for native soil is a bit too surely planted in the American South for the description to do her justice. This book, edited by Emily Herring Wilson, collects Lawrence’s correspondence with Katharine S. White (1892–1977), a colleague in the literary garden and, in her long career at The New Yorker, a doyenne of American literary culture. Lovers of fine style, seed catalogs, flower beds, and epistolary friendships will relish this happy book.

The Delicacy and Strength of Lace

Letters Between Leslie Marmon Silko & James Wright

An 18-month correspondence between two writers, one (Silko) struggling to shape her work, the other (Wright) in possession of a well-established, well-exercised poetic voice. They met only twice: once, briefly, at a writers’ conference, and again as Wright lay dying of cancer. Each writer’s dexterity with word and image, given free rein in the relaxed setting of these friendly letters, is apparent; but what’s poignant in their epistles is the need to give and get comfort, respect, and encouragement from another versed in the common language of the muses.

The Holmes-Laski Letters

The Correspondence of Mr. Justice Holmes & Harold J. Laski, 1916–1935

That one of the most intriguing of American writers was also a Supreme Court justice has always filled me with peculiar cheer. This enormous correspondence between Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and the British economist and political theorist Harold Laski is something like the Everest of epistolary friendships, with two fertile, searching minds nourishing each other over the course of 19 years, commencing when Justice Holmes was 75 and Laski only 23. There’s a great deal on law and politics, but lots of literary and philosophical import as well (Laski was an inveterate book hound, and reports on his searches and seizures abound). That the younger man appears to have a penchant for exaggerating — at times even fabricating — the extent of his activities and influence, and that this tendency was not entirely lost on Holmes, adds spice to the rich feast. (The Holmes-Pollack Letters, the jurist’s 1874–1932 correspondence with Sir Frederick Pollack, is also worth seeking out.)

Correspondence Across a Room

V. I. Ivanov & M. O. Gershenzon

In the summer of 1920, weakened from the privations caused by the Russian Civil War, the authors were admitted to a rest home outside Moscow. They found themselves installed in opposite corners of the same room. The urge to converse distracting them from their respective literary work, they poured their talk into the articulate mold of letters. A choreographed eloquence of stimulus and response animates these curious, provocative missives; if you need proof of how valuable putting one’s thoughts onto a page can be in clarifying, deepening, and even discovering them, this correspondence between a poet and a historian provides it.

The Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters

I’ve read no sustained correspondence as enjoyable as these British, bookish, and refreshingly well-mannered exchanges between a publisher (Rupert Hart-Davis) and his former teacher (George Lyttelton). Their talk — which unfolds in the weekly epistles the gentlemen exchanged from 1955 until Lyttelton’s death in 1962 — bustles with Hart-Davis’s incessant activity (including editing the letters of Oscar Wilde, publishing a celebrated array of authors, and occupying the center of London’s literary culture) and brims with his elder’s wide reading, rich store of experience, and pure delight in having an audience for the comings and goings of his fertile mind. Crammed with marvelous bons mots (try this one, quoted early on by Lyttelton: “that state of resentful coma which scholars attempt to dignify by calling research”), arcane yet curiously pleasing cricket metaphors, and civilized chitchat of the highest order, these letters make up an ideal and ever-inviting course of reading, especially if you’re an Anglophile, bibliophile insomniac.

Other delightful examples of two-way exchanges include The 3,000–Mile Garden: An Exchange of Letters on Gardening, Food, and the Good Life by Leslie Land and Roger Phillips; the warm, witty correspondence between Julia Child and her friend Avis DeVoto, collected in As Always, Julia; and the recently published Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, which is shot through with the acute intelligence and idiosyncratic enthusiasms of those two critical geniuses, whose private language sometimes sounds like it was concocted by two precocious hackers who wandered out of an game of academic Dungeons & Dragons into the source code of modernist literature. If you catch the letter-reading bug, there is an endless assortment of single author collections, from Vincent Van Gogh and William James to Flannery O’Connor and Elizabeth Bishop, that offer reading solace in discrete doses.

Portions of the above have been adapted from the book, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich. Copyright © 2018 by James Mustich. Published by Workman Publishing.

James Mustich

Written by

Now: Author, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die (Workman Publishing). Then: publisher and chief bookseller, A Common Reader.