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Letters of Note

Correspondence across the ages that reveal the personal side of public figures and humanize great events

by Hans Aschim in Culture on 08 April 2014

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Not so long ago—in the age before Twitter, email and Facebook—people wrote out their feelings, gripes, grievances and praise on hotel notepads, scraps of paper and personal stationary, and then mailed them. While some might argue that the art of correspondence died with the advent of the internet, it was Letters of Note—a popular website sharing correspondence across history and spheres—that paved the way for the exceptional hardcover of the same name. The book's introduction aptly describes itself as "a museum of letters" that are as addictive as they are enlightening; featuring letters from Ernest Hemingway, Fidel Castro, Nick Cave, Elvis and more than a few world leaders.

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London-based author Shaun Usher compiled the collection of over 125 letters over the course of four years and the subjects span both private and public theatrics. A letter from Elvis Presley to President Nixon is written in-flight on American Airlines stationary, in which Presley expresses his patriotism and requests to be made a Federal Agent, "just so long as it is kept very private." Each of the letters is accompanied with a contextual note from Usher that only serves to add to the fascination and potential rabbit hole of additional research readers might find themselves falling into.

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From art to music, politics, history, civil rights and drawing on just about every human emotion, it's easy to get lost in the 342-page tome. Each letter tells its own stories and it is easy to find oneself interested in new subjects. Perhaps the book's greatest virtue (and that of correspondence itself) is its ability to inject individual humanity into historical events and time periods. One highlight is a letter from a free slave to his former master, kindly rejecting an offer of a job while inquiring about the family and describing his new life. These true stories—whether they're between household names or persons unknown—reflect the great importance of interpersonal communication and the beauty of long-form written conversation.

"Letters of Note" is available in hardcover from Amazon for $29.

Photos by Hans Aschim

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