To the Letter: A Journey Through a Vanishing World by Simon Garfield - review by Diana Athill

Diana Athill

Signed, Sealed, Delivered

To the Letter: A Journey Through a Vanishing World


Canongate 464pp £17.99

This wonderful book clamours for quotation, but if I started that there would be no end to it. It is a history of letter writing, full of examples of the art, which is to say of voices. When a hand transfers what a writer thinks or feels onto paper which another hand will later unfold, it can convey and preserve that writer’s nature more vividly than any other means of communication. Why that should be so is mysterious, but that it is so becomes increasingly evident as one progresses through this book; and so does one’s dismay increase at the fact that nowadays letter writing has become so rare.

It took mankind a long time to understand fully the usefulness of the pen – or stylus, as it was to start with. The letters written between AD 97 and 104 on wooden tablets by Roman soldiers stationed in the far north of England were short and practical – usually

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