Books Are Pretty

Monday, September 03, 2007

For The Love Of Letters.

I have to get this out of the way first and foremost: this book needs a different title. It seems fine at first; it's simple, direct, and tells the reader exactly what to expect. However, when I went to Amazon to find a photo of the book to put at the top of the review, Letters to Penthouse popped up instead, even when I typed the title word for word into the search box. You can't compete with Letters to Penthouse. It's just too distracting. Although - ALTHOUGH! - you can't argue with the fact that the men who Couldn't Believe Something Like This Would Ever Happen To Them could benefit from a professional letter-writer who could avoid some of the many, many clich├ęd phrases that hack their way between all those threeways.

Samara O'Shea's guide to the forgotten art of letter-writing valiantly attempts to revive the fading art of written communication. Like many of us word nerds, O'Shea is concerned with the current trend of the devolving English language, thanks in no small part to the technology boom of Blackberries, text-messaging cell phones, and instant messaging. Internet speak has become the written equivalent of fast food - it may sate the appetite, but does very little for the soul.

For The Love of Letters: A 21st-Century Guide to the Art of Letter Writing is broken up into seven chapters, each addressing a different situation that would call for an abandonment of email and a reliance on a postage stamp. Love letters, business letters, Dear John letters, thank you letters, and letters of apology are all carefully addressed, with several subsections devoted to everything from the erotic letter to the best way to write a letter refusing to write a letter (of recommendation).

O'Shea gives several juicy examples for the reader to enjoy. She includes her humbling letter of apology that she wrote after she was fired from her job at O Magazine, one of the hot and nasty letters James Joyce wrote to his wife, and makes reference to the adamant refusal from Joyce's grandson Steven to reprint any more of those heated missives. (O'Shea opted to reprint Junior Joyce's crabbily-worded response on her website rather than in the book, for fear of receiving more unwanted correspondence from the notoriously litigious Joyce.)

Reading For the Love of Letters caused me to think back to when I'd last written an actual handwritten letter. It had to have been years ago, when I reached out to a long lost friend in hopes of catching up. It was a tremendous success. I received a handwritten letter of my own from her almost right away, and her opening sentences were, "It made my whole day to find a letter, an actual letter in my mailbox! I haven't gotten a real letter in years, and it made me so happy to sit down at the kitchen table to read it."

Neither O'Shea nor I mean any disrespect to email correspondence, I'm sure. I personally am a big fan of email. With two children and a full time job, it's an invaluable tool to keep up with the doings of both friends and business. But it cannot be denied that letter-writing is indeed a lost art form, and receiving one can be like an unexpected and appreciated gift, depending, of course, on the content.

Admirably, O'Shea has managed to dovetail her love of craft with love of money by starting an online (where else?) professional letter-writing business, Letter Lover, where, for fifty bucks, she'll say anything to anybody.

Everybody has spent what seems like hours in front of the computer, with a necessary letter hanging overhead, with no idea how or where to begin. It's somewhat of a relief to know you now have the opportunity to shove this unwelcome task off onto somebody else, and O'Shea does write excellent letters, no two ways about it.

However, if it's a love letter you're wanting to write, please don't hire her. Do it yourself, or don't do it at all. Even O'Shea states right up front on her website that her love letters are not going to sound like the person they'll ostensibly be from. After all, the handsome lunkhead who used Cyrano de Bergerac's passionate words to woo the lovely Roxane worked for only one reason: Roxane didn't know either Cyrano or the lunkhead. But Cyrano knew Roxane. Therefore he was able to draw from both passion and the context of her life, which is what made his words to her so irresistible. To be perfectly blunt, O'Shea doesn't want to blow your boyfriend. You do. And no matter how skilled the writer, that kind of passion is very, very hard to fake. Better to get a passionate letter written all in internet acronyms than a bloodless love letter with no grammatical errors and well-set margins.

But her weaknesses in writing love letters are her strengths in just about every other letter she writes, where courtesy, integrity, and intelligence are valued far above passion, and this is where both The Love of Letters and O'Shea's website are an asset to anyone who must put pen to paper.

For The Love Of Letters
by Samara O'Shea
2007 by Harper Collins
Hardcover, 163pp
ISBN: 978-0-06-121530-8

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