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To the Letter: The Lost Art of Letter Writing and How to Get It Back

3.72  ·  Rating details ·  681 ratings  ·  143 reviews
To the Letter tells the story of our remarkable journey through the mail. From Roman wood chips discovered near Hadrian's Wall to the wonders and terrors of email, Simon Garfield explores how we have written to each other over the centuries and what our letters reveal about our lives.

Along the way he delves into the great correspondences of our time, from Cicero and Petrar
Hardcover, 464 pages
Published October 24th 2013 by Canongate (first published January 1st 2013)
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Average rating 3.72  · 
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May 30, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
There was a time, long ago, when an adult would corner you with stories about walking five miles to school. In the snow. Without a winter coat or serviceable shoes. Dessert was an apple. The tooth fairy brought a quarter. Santa Claus left underwear. ("And we were mighty glad to have it!") Summertime diversions were fourteen variations of Tag, a bag of marbles, hopscotch, jump rope, running through a sprinkler. This adult would go on and on until, one sad and sorry day, he passed his Baton of Cha ...more
Nov 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing
In this book the author looks at a now vanishing art - that of letter writing. As a child I remember having many pen-pals - some I am still in contact with now, although admittedly we mostly email. Email certainly has its uses and is an immediate way to contact someone, but perhaps they do not have the depth of a letter and the author explores this unique form of communication. He argues that letters in the modern sense are both personal and informative and begin properly with the Romans, "the f ...more
The Bursting Bookshelf of a Wallflower
4 stars!

In this book, Simon Garfield takes his readers on a beautiful journey through the lost world of letter writing. As a passionate snail mailer myself, I have highly enjoyed this book. It tells us about the development of the postal service, it offers us insights into the vital importance of letters in past times and it let us get a glimpse into very personal letters from a wide array of different personalities – philosophers, authors, kings and artist, but also ordinary people like you an
Oct 21, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: books-read-2014
The letter has been a method of communication that has been in existence for thousands of years. In the book Garfield takes us from the utterances of Pliny, the wooden cards found preserved in the waterlogged ground at the town of Vindolanda next to Hadrian's Wall, the methods you need to to write the perfect letter and the art of the love letter.

There is a brief history of the postal service, after all you cannot send letters without it, and a couple of chapters on the growing market for corres
Apr 30, 2014 rated it it was ok
I quite enjoyed On the Map and was looking for Just my Type but they had this instead. It looked interesting and appealed, as I used to be an avid letter writer (I used to have shoe-boxes of letters from my first serious girlfriend - we had continuous ongoing conversations in print for years before email took over).

Despite all that I didn't enjoy the book that much. Partly perhaps because I had a deadline to get it back to the library (though I read fast I never like having to) but mostly becau
Feb 10, 2018 marked it as didn-t-finish  ·  review of another edition
This has been languishing in my pile of books for weeks now. Picked it up, put it down, read a little, skimmed a little, flipped through the rest of the pages in case something caught my eye. It has its interesting bits but it is TOO long for someone with only a casual and not a scholarly interest in letter-writing.
Lisa Cotton
Mar 09, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Thought this was lovely - a warm and nostalgic look at the history of the letter and what it has meant over the years. Primarily this book is really about love - the love of words and the bit of paper that holds them, of course, but more so about the love that is carried in those words and bits of paper.

Some chapters are a little on the dry side but overall it's fascinating and nicely illuminated by an excellent selection of letters - so many vivid, juicy letters - it's almost voyeuristic readin
Sep 08, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
When I stumbled upon a book about letters, I knew I had to buy and read it. As an old-school letter writing (and receiving) enthousiast, I must say that I enjoyed reading through this overview. It contains a lot of pointers to great letter writers throughout history and got me to look into for instance Mdme. De Sévigné's amusing writings. I do wish Simon also dedicated at least one chapter to ink and the writing instruments themselves. There's also little about the growing need to write in the W ...more
Nov 16, 2013 marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Having recently received a copy of a letter that my grandmother wrote to a local newspaper publisher in the 1952 - at his request, and fortuitously sent a carbon copy of to her sister (whose granddaughter sent it to my father's cousin, whose husband sent it to me), I am keenly aware of the value of letter writing. My grandmother wrote about the trip she took with my mother, her daughter-in-law, to Algiers to visit my mother's family. It is priceless and a piece of our family history captured now ...more
Melanie  H
Jan 26, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I love this author, he writes about what I'm most interested in! Who hasn't dreamed of working in the dead letter office. And while I probably knew this, I'm a tad bit afraid of the world once the last personal letter has been sent (Garfield claims it will be in our lifetime).

He also puts into words perfectly the difference between a mailed letter and email. With a letter, I know the journey. With email, I can't possibly understand the netherworld of server farms across the great Midwest plains
Sarah Coller
Mar 08, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Overall, I enjoyed this fun and very thorough look into the history of letter writing. It's definitely a book that got better as it went along. Surprisingly, some of the historical bits got a little dry. The more ancient examples bored me but as the letter writing history became more modern, I became more intrigued.

The history of letter writing manuals was interesting, though I tend to agree with Montaigne that copying a prescribed style seems inauthentic. I also found it so interesting that pe
Review Pending
Koen Crolla
Jan 11, 2014 rated it it was ok
Shelves: history
``Unnecessarily detailed histories of random things'' is quickly becoming one of my favourite genres, but To the Letter isn't one of those. Though Garfield does purport to describe the history of letters and the postal system, he is a Wikipedia historian at best, and covers only the most well-known facts without any attempt at synthesis or even truly niche knowledge.

He starts at Vindolanda, skips to a tiny subset of the letters by famous Romans any secondary school student will have translated (
Michael Percy
Nov 11, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: reviewed
This is a quirky book about the lost art of letter writing. I started writing letters again a few years ago, writing to family and later friends. My family and I still correspond but no friends ever returned a letter. One gentlemen did email me, saying he was pleasantly surprised to receive a handwritten letter, but that he used email these days. I have a letter waiting to go to my sister as I write this, and she will respond in kind. Garfield (his name was Garfunkel but this was changed by his ...more
Feb 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, letters, wwii
Only after finishing ‘To the Letter’ did I realise that I’d already read another book edited by the same author: Our Hidden Lives: The Remarkable Diaries of Post-War Britain, an anthology of diaries written for the Mass Observation Project. That was a charming and fascinating insight into the daily lives of ordinary people in the past, and so is this. Garfield recounts the history of popular letter writing, sprinkling the narrative with plenty of applicable examples as well as an ongoing exchang ...more
Dec 06, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The premise of this delightful book is rather contradictory. The author and many of the interview subjects within the book insist that the art of a well-written letter and the practice of sending letters by post is dead. Yet it lives despite changes in technology and habits of writing and communication generally (which are interrelated), and the privatization of postal services worldwide. (As I write, Royal Mail has been converted to a for-profit corporation, and the USPS is under attack in Amer ...more
Kristi Thielen
Aug 14, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Easy to enjoy book for anyone - especially baby boomers like myself - who remember a time when people communicated largely by letter and receiving one was a delight.

Garfield discusses the letters of celebrated persons through history and how some of them now fetch extraordinary prices among collectors. He also explains why some great writers were also great letter writers (John Keats, Barrett and Browning) and also that some great writers weren't great letter writers and why they weren't. (Jane
Jul 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Outstanding! This is an extensively researched yet eminently readable story of the development (and now the decline) of the hand-written letter. Along the way there are lots of fascinating vignettes with historical figures (already I feel I know Napoleon FAR better than I ever would have, had I not read bits of his letters to Josephine) - many of them about love and/or war. The book itself is a love letter to the letter, but beyond nostalgia, it raises interesting questions about what the rise o ...more
Interesting but sometimes tedious. Letter writing goes back a long ways and we have examples at least from Roman times. Examples are given from both well known people (Cicero, Pliny, Jane Austen) and the unknown. Included are letters from a British soldier in World War II to an acquaintance who became his sweetheart and later his wife.
Chapters are: The magic of letters; From Vindolanda, greetings; The consolations of Cicero, Seneca, and Pliny the Younger; Love in its earliest form; How to write
Madeline Roberts
This book, about the lost art of letter writing, is more than just a non-fiction book describing letters. To the Letter is about romance, about history, and it's like an anthology of memoirs or biographies; it's about human lives and relationships. It's about the interconnectedness that we all share.

Garfield writes about the history of letter writing, the history of letter sending (the postal service, etc.) and about the fascinating people who wrote and left a legacy of letters.

As I read, each c
John Cooper
An exhaustive history of letters, letter writing, letter technology, and the history of postal systems, written in a casual, chatty style with frequent illustrations throughout. The sheer amount of information in the absence of a plotline made this exhausting reading for me, until it suddenly picked up at page 360 with an extremely well-done chapter on Hughes and Plath, followed by another on the man who chose the @ sign for email, Ray Tomlinson. Garfield's tone makes it clear that he didn't set ...more
Dec 10, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
"There isn't a shadow of doubt that we are both in the same mutually approving mood, and that if we were within smiling distance of each other, we should soon be doing rather more than that.

You fascinate and weaken me, and make me feel strong.

How impossible to sleep with thought and wonder of you hot within me."
Jan 05, 2020 rated it it was ok
I absolutely love snail mail; I am an avid post-crosser, and love writing letters when I can, it is a lost art. I was thoroughly looking forwards to reading this, however, I found the structure of the book to be poor and disjointed. There is some interesting chapters and then some not. A nice attempt but sadly not enjoyed on my part.
Dec 21, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Garfield's exploration of letter writing is educational and also fun, each chapter of the book built rather like a series of letters themselves. Full of writing prompts for those who participate in letter-writing circles. ...more
Dec 28, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A very enjoyable & interesting read.
Some of the letters quoted are just fascinating.

Wendy Mihell
Feb 16, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
To the Letter certainly has a target audience, and, hooray (!) I think I'm it! I genuinely enjoyed this book on the history of letters and a prospective look into the future. A little dry in parts, and spectacularly entertaining in others, I found this love-letter to the art of the letter to be genuinely entertaining and enlightening. The chapter breaks of a series of letters between an actual set of penpals turned lovers adds some plot and extra emotional pull. I can also say that reading this ...more
Sep 02, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
As a letter writer I have quite high expectations of this book. Does this book meet my expectations? Barely. Here are why:

The book is well structured and sequenced, containing stories that feels more like trivia about letters. The writing style is quite entertaining but in my personal opinion the dictions consist of big words which makes the book less enjoyable.

There are some boring parts going over auction which is pretty unfamiliar. Most of the chapters covers famous literary figures; half are
Sep 16, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
My sister in law has never used a computer (or at least not for letter writing). She lives across the ocean. I have saved every single one of her letters, cards, postcards. I write her emails that her husband prints up for her, and I wait a week and her response appears in my inbox. I type long letters single spaced on 8 X 10 printer paper, sometimes in a stream of consciousness style. She makes sure I hear all her news in 4 or 5 handwritten stationary sheets. It is such a gift to see her handwr ...more
The Literary Parlour
I was excited about this book and have shared a mini review on my BookTube channel on YouTube called: The Literary Parlour. In this New York bestseller, Simon Garfield, the writer take the reader on an historial journey into the art of letter writing.

It goes into dept of how the times have changed, the art of wrtting letters and the current impact it plays in society today. I think this book may be of interest to anyone who likes history and wants to reads good past time literature.

This book di
Mar 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is a nice, meandering, nostalgic read. The highlight is a series of WWII letters between an ordinary soldier and his friend Bessie back home — who he met working at the Post Office — given in full in between Garfield's chapters. The book covers the history of letter writing from the earliest Roman tablets from Vindolanda, up to the invention of email and the role of letters in the modern world. I felt that the middle of the book lost its way slightly, but it was definitely worth sticking wi ...more
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Simon Garfield is a British journalist and non-fiction author. He was educated at the independent University College School in Hampstead, London, and the London School of Economics, where he was the Executive Editor of The Beaver. He also regularly writes for The Observer newspaper.

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