I was looking for something that I could read a few pages of in bed last night, just to unwind, and pulled out my copy of “Funny Letters From Famous People,” a thoroughly enjoyable book edited by former “CBS Sunday Morning” host Charles Osgood. I also have another of Osgood’s books, “Nothing Could Be Finer Than A Crisis That Is Minor In The Morning.”
I think I bought “Funny Letters” just a year or two ago at the library’s used book sale. It’s exactly what the title promises: excerpts of amusing correspondence by public figures from George Washington to Groucho Marx. It’s exactly the type of book for reading a few pages of in bed before you doze off.
But last night, it got me to thinking about the lost art of letter-writing. There’s no longer any need for long, involved letters to catch your far-flung friend or relative up on the latest developments in your life. They already know, if not from social media than from much-more-immediate forms of communication like telephone and e-mail.
I happened to open the book last night to a letter by H.L. Mencken. Mencken had not heard from his good friend Theodore Dreiser in some time, and so — rather than write Dreiser a straightforward letter — he wrote a parody of a letter from the “Theodore Dreiser Widows & Orphans Relief And Aid Association,” in which the head of the mythical group explains to Mencken that Dreiser has been missing for some time and that the association was formed to raise funds for the many different widows and orphans Dreiser left behind.
It’s as brilliantly-funny as you’d expect from Mencken, and I only wish Osgood had been able to include Dreiser’s reaction to it.
Five or six years ago, I bought — and thoroughly enjoyed — “As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto”, edited by Joan Reardon. This is a book composed entirely of letters. If you were a fan of Julia Child, I highly recommend it. Avis DeVoto was the wife of an author and columnist named Bernard DeVoto. When her husband wrote in his column about the difficulty of finding good chef’s knives in the U.S., Julia Child — then unknown, and living in Paris — sent him some. Avis wrote a “thank you” letter, and that led to a long-distance correspondence between the two, who became close friends before they ever got the chance to meet in person. Avis DeVoto had connections in the publishing industry, and when Julia began planning what would become “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” it was Avis DeVoto who provided invaluable advice, feedback and introductions, eventually leading to the publication of the ground-breaking cookbook.
All of this makes me feel wistful for the glory days of correspondence.
Of course, those of you who read my blog posts may be thanking your lucky stars that you don’t have to read, and respond to, actual letters.