Seeking the why of letters

  • Updated: November 28, 2009 - 8:25 AM

Despite engaging in a pointless debate (Has e-mail trumped the handwritten note? Yes. Will penned missives survive our digital age? Who knows?), "Yours Ever: People and Their Letters," by novelist and critic Thomas Mallon, enjoyably treats a chattier matter: why we write -- recklessly, passionately, self-revealingly -- to anyone at all.

Its mention of Tweets and IMs notwithstanding, the book gives off a strong whiff of the past. It features letters exchanged by thwarted 13th-century lovers Heloise and Abelard, dispatches sent from English dungeons by doomed aristocrats and reports penned by a horror-struck Florence Nightingale on the waste laid by the Crimean War.

Readers who've spent weekends antiquing will be enchanted by the book; those who grew up on MTV alone may be less enamored. Perhaps that's why Mallon frets over the fate of the epistle amid modern-day technology. He shouldn't worry. Driving "Yours Ever" is a timeless question: Why bare one's secrets, silliness and soul -- whether by parchment or pixel?

The motive is simple, if fraught with danger. Most of us find conversing -- even at a remove -- with a friend, lover or stranger better than talking to ourselves. Readers, whether history buffs or not, should find this book pleasingly ripe with insights into the bittersweet rewards of revealing oneself to the perfect listener: at once achingly absent, but also -- for a time -- so blissfully silent.

SUSAN COMNINOS

  • YOURS EVER

    By: Thomas Mallon.

    Publisher: Pantheon, 311 pages, $26.95.Review: Mallon examines why it is that we feel compelled to reveal ourselves in letters, and worries that in this age of electronic messages the art might be dying, even if the impulse is not.

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