‘Letters of Note’ Review

Letters of Note

You will have heard of Letters of Note. It has been an online sensation that has divulged the secret thoughts of significant figures in history by publishing their clandestine letters. A collection of otherwise undisclosed feelings and ideas between fascinating characters and interesting people. Now there’s a book, a beautiful, illustrated, hardback book.

Here you can read the letter Albert Einstein wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, warning him about the feasibility of the construction of an atomic bomb using uranium. The moving last letter from Virginia Woolf to her husband before she took her own life contrasts to the (now rather humorous) letter from Elvis Presley to President Nixon requesting the title ‘Federal Agent at Large’ so that he could get a badge to add to his collection.

One can appreciate, probably more so than F. Scott Fitzgerald, the brutally honest letter Ernest Hemingway sent him detailing his thoughts on his novel, ‘Tender is the Night’. ‘It’s not as good as you can do’, he wrote. In the same literary era, we find a rejection letter from publisher Arthur Field to Gertrude Stein mimicking her repetitive rhythmic poetry, ‘Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one.’ (Gertrude Stein is one of the poets I love unutterably so obviously I was drawn by a sheer magnetism of interest to that letter!).

I particularly enjoyed examining the handwriting and penmanship of the writers. Mark Twain had lovely handwriting in his congratulatory letter to Walt Whitman who was nearing his 70th birthday; the image of the letter from 14th century BC on a clay tablet is awe-inspiring.

In fact, the entire book is. It’s the best antidote I can imagine to our age of declining letter writing. It’s such an engrossing book, I could easily spend the whole day reading it. Perfect for prying eyes like mine…


‘Letters of Note’ was released on 24th October 2013, compiled by Shaun Usher, published by Canongate Books, £30.

More about the ‘Letters of Note’ project here.

Update: Read my review of ‘Lists of Note’ here.

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