Have you ever had penpals or do you still have penpals? As a teenager I loved writing letters – real physical letters with pen and paper. There used to be a whole culture based around finding other penpals with things called friendship books. You’d add your address and interests to a little booklet with dozens of other names and this would get mailed around by other enthusiastic pen pal folk. It was like a social network site before the internet. In this way I acquired hundreds of penpals from all over the world. It was so exciting learning about other people and cultures far away from my own small town in Maine. But a big part of the thrill was coming home and finding a mail box full of letters addressed to me. It also helped me to know myself better writing about my life to these virtual strangers. There’s a special pleasure in getting a handwritten letter – an art largely lost with the advent of email!
The Letters Page recaptures a bit of this magic by producing a literary journal around the form of the written letter and includes extracts, short stories, travelogue and poetry. They’ve just published their first collected volume and it’s a beautiful limited edition boxed set with loose-leaf reproductions of the contributor’s original handwritten letters with illustrations. As editor Jon McGregor discusses in his introduction sending and receiving letters involves lapses of time: the letter you send is sent to the future and the letter you receive is from the past. This completely changes how we read and interpret something as opposed to an email that pops up in an inbox. Also, our handwriting contains our personality and it conveys such a different feeling seeing a person’s scribbles than reading an impersonal type-written form. There can also be things crossed out and doodles in the margins. At the beginning of this volume, George Saunders also discusses how letters aide us in developing “our understanding of our relation to the greater world”. This is definitely something that was important for me writing so many letters as a teenager and discovering the physical world outside of my own little circumscribed existence.
The anthology includes writing from some very bright and cutting-edge authors who are able to find a new flair for their subject matter in this concentrated form. I’ve read books by several of these authors recently including Joanna Walsh who writes a funny and touching story about the gradual loss of some special cargo in a journey across Europe, Naomi Alderman who takes a new view on practicing the Jewish faith (or not), Kevin Barry who writes about the spectre of death/communing with other writers in rural Ireland and the hilarious Karen McLeod who writes a chatty letter to Alan Bennett.
There’s also some really diverse and startling writing. Some is more impressionistic like poets cataloguing a travel experience complete with drawings. Then there is writing which is more direct like a heartbreaking letter from Claudia Reed to her father about his struggles in the civil rights movement. Cassie Gonzales letter about representations of race includes a number of strike outs and corrections so the reader gets a sense of the actual thought process learning in some ways more from what’s been crossed out than what’s left in. Each letter says something particular about the experience of letter writing and couldn’t convey what they do in traditional Microsoft Word formatted printed pages. There is a relationship formed in writing and reading letters which is so intimate like peering into someone else’s window. As someone who used to love exchanging letters so much, it’s thrilling to see this form being kept alive in such a creative format as The Letters Page. Find out more about this special anthology here and the publisher Book Ex Machina's ordering page here.