Recently, I read Simon Garfield’s book To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing. It was more of a history than a “celebration” (though the author was definitely in favor of letter writing), but it was an enjoyable history, and, like many good books, led me to discover all kinds of other things. One of those was Lewis Carroll’s (yes, that Lewis Carroll, of Alice fame) “Eight or Nine Wise Words On Letter-Writing,” published in 1890 and therefore available through Gutenberg.
Between To the Letter and “Eight or Nine Wise Words,” I decided that one of my resolutions this year would be to write pen-and-paper letters to people. Because we had a lot of snow days recently, and therefore a lot of free time indoors, I went a step further: I downloaded Carroll’s pamphlet, re-formatted it, printed it out, and bound it, with some blank pages in the back for a modified version of his “Letter-Register.” (I know, I know: normal people, stuck inside for days, would just watch TV. I did some of that too.)
My version is a lot bigger that the original, with fewer pages; his little pamphlet accompanied a stamp case for carrying around all the different denominations of stamps (this was long before “Forever stamps” were invented). Some pages are sewn in, and some are tipped in with polyvinyl acetate (PVA, a kind of plastic glue).
The Guternberg file included some of the original images. Use of the images and text is completely legal (“This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at http://www.gutenberg.net”).
It’s really amazing how much of Carroll’s advice holds up for modern letter-writers. Among these bits of wisdom (for those not inclined to read the whole thing): if you’re replying to a letter, have that letter in front of you; start by addressing and stamping the envelope; always date your letters “in full” with the month, day, and year; carry letters in your hand when going to mail them (or you’ll forget); write legibly; if you are enclosing something, put it in the envelope when you mention it (because you won’t remember by the end of the letter); and use a sign-off at least as friendly – if not friendlier – than your correspondent’s.
There’s a lot of other good advice too, and it’s all full of Carroll’s cleverness and sense of humor. Garfield’s book has a sense of humor too (he makes fun of stamp collectors – although, as someone who’s writing a book about letters, and who has previously written about typefaces and maps, I feel he’s on rather thin ice here). So yes, it’s 2014, and we have e-mail and text messaging and Twitter and Tumblr – but we also still have real letters. Write one, and give someone else the pleasure of receiving mail that isn’t a bill or a catalog.