2013 was an excellent year for reading other people’s mail

No one sends you letters any more? Try recent collections of correspondence by Willa Cather, George Orwell, Henry David Thoreau, and others.

Collections of letters by writers like Willa Cather and George Orwell make for some of the best reading.

We’ve entered the postal doldrums between Christmas and New Year’s, a week when readers can’t expect to find much of interest in the household mailbox.

The holiday cards have pretty much already arrived, although a few stragglers might surface in the daily delivery. Maybe some New Year’s greetings will make their way into the mix, too.

But if you’re looking for a personal note from a friend or loved one courtesy of the US mail right now, you’re probably out of luck.

And that dreary lull at the tail-end of the tail-end of the year resonates with an even deeper heaviness, since it’s part of a larger retreat in the practice of handwritten correspondence. A few greeting cards each year, for holidays or birthdays, along with a handful of thank-you notes, are just about the only personal mail that most of us will send through the postal service. E-mail rules.

But how is that change reshaping literary culture, which was guided for centuries by writers trading letters with each other, performing on the page, refining the voices they used in crafting essays, short stories and novels?

The question popped up with some frequency in 2013, a year that included the release of quite a few volumes of collected correspondence. Those books reminded readers of how strongly the world of letters has been shaped by, well, letters.

“The Selected Letters of Willa Cather” appeared in 2013, along with an American edition of “George Orwell: A Life in Letters.” It was joined by “The Letters of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.Princeton University Press published the first volume of a definitive series of Henry David Thoreau’s correspondence. Readers had an embarrassment of riches this year when it came to reading other people’s mail.

But the collected letters released this year also underscored the degree to which this kind of correspondence is something of a period piece. Cather, Orwell and Schlesinger dashed off their letters before email entered the scene.

But in “Distant Intimacy,” one of the more unusual books of 2013, Joseph Epstein and Frederic Raphael suggested that e-mail exchanges could still accommodate the ideals of literary correspondence carried through the post.

The two authors corresponded for a year on reading and writing, history and popular culture, creating an exchange as erudite as anything one might find in the letters of antiquity.

Epstein said that the convenience of email made enlightened intellectual exchange easier, not harder, than in the old days. “I’m not sure that anyone in the past century could have written with the same regularity and volume – roughly 3,500 words a week over the course of a little over a year – as did Freddie and I through the quasi-magical dispensation of e-mail,” Epstein told readers.

But reading “Distant Intimacy” makes one wonder whether e-mail, which has largely supplanted postal mail, might also be becoming rather quaint, too. In the abbreviated universe of Twitter, Facebook and Reddit, the sensibility of e-mail can seem almost Victorian.

But the writing of letters, Simon Garfield argues in his new book, “To the Letter,” still carries the promise of enchantment.

“Letters have the power to grant us a larger life. They reveal motivation and deepen understanding. They are evidential. They change lives, and they rewire history. The world used to run on their transmission – the lubricant of human interaction and the freefall of ideas, the silent conduit of the worthy and the incidental, the time we were coming for dinner, the account of our marvelous day, the weightiest joys and sorrows of love,” Garfield writes. “It must have seemed impossible that their worth would ever be taken for granted or swept aside. A world without letters would surely be a world without oxygen.”

 Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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