How to read a letter

How to read a letter

Homage to Virginia Woolf, whose ‘How does one read a book?’ essay has recently appeared as a (very) short book. But mine is a more practical bunch of thoughts about reading a letter than her philosophical reflections. Writing about this has been in mind since coming across Woolf‘s ‘new’ book, but each day including weekends seems jam-packed, although with what I’m not exactly sure. I’ve been busy every day doing many small things, but with a sense of not really accomplishing anything. And until this morning one of the things not being accomplished was writing something short about reading a letter! So here goes, inspired by an actual letter from an actual distant friend some hundreds of miles away.

Plop, it arrives through the letterbox. For much of my life, the arrival of letters through letterboxes has been an ordinary and unremarkable occurrence. Now, our local postman, who I know quite well, announces the arrival of a real letter by knocking on the door and then standing back to have a brief conversation about it. He delivers the local post every day and has done so for over 20 years, and for him now a real letter for someone is an occasion. And when it’s a postcard, the conversation is greater, though scrupulously the comments are made about the picture, not the written word. As this indicates, there has been a small surge in letter-writing and the sending of postcards among people I know, who for the first time for a long time can spend a brief time actually writing an actual letter. And like Pavlov’s dog, I hear the letterbox or the knock on the door at around 2pm and  rush to see what has arrived.

Scrutinise the envelope. That first rush encompasses picking up what has arrived, sorting through things, and when there is a letter then scrutinising the envelope and the handwriting. Is it for me, is it for my partner, is it sometimes a joint address? This is a joyous moment, a real sense of anticipation occurs because of not knowing who might have written and about what. The envelope tells much, for the wrapper can be as informative as what it contains. What kind of envelope and so whether it is a letter or a card. What kind of writing and so who is it from. What postmark is on it and therefore where it was sent from.

Decide where to open it. If it looks exciting or unusual or is from someone whose letter can be keenly anticipated, there is a tussle. This happens very quickly and is about whether to open it right there and then, tearing the envelope open in a hasty way, or to take it somewhere else and sit down to open it more carefully. There is no pattern, it seems happenstance, or rather it seems connected with what else is going on. If it’s cold and wet, most likely the sitting room. If it’s hot and sunny, perhaps the bench outside the front door.

Decide how to open and extract the letter. A letter from the UK tax authority or arrival of a belated birthday or Christmas card, and a letter from a loved distant friend who is meticulous in keeping in touch, can be discerned from the envelope and the address. They are not nor should they be treated in the same way. The official letter might be, is often, put in a pile and left. The friend‘s letter is opened either when at the door or when removed inside to a chair, and it is opened carefully to preserve the envelope because this is where the letter is likely to reside longer term. Yes, real letters are still kept.

Turning the page – the scent of the writer. Some letters are short, some are long, and all of them involve, in a metaphorical sense, the turning of the page and the scent of its writer. The recipient of a letter reads the words and notes any mistakes or omissions in the same order as its writer has written or missed them: I follow her or him and read the words as they have written them. The letter and how it is read conveys the writer’s agency, but more than this it conveys their personhood. It really does conjure up, in a sense, the scent of the letter-writer, some hint of their personhood and their relationship to me as the person reading their words.

The first read. The first read of a letter poses a difficult question – quickly gobble its contents, or savour them in a lingering way? To an extent this is impacted by what has gone before, and whether the letter is part of a correspondence or perhaps part of communicative exchanges by telephone, Skype, or face-to-face. It’s also influenced by how long the letter, how il/legible the handwriting or whether there is the clarity of a printer font. And then there is the context in which it is read. This includes both the reader’s personal context of health and illness, interest or disengagement, leisure or fraught busyness, and the materialities of room and chair and habitation, as well as the touch and feel and resonance of the letter itself. All this also raises another question.

A second read? Will there be a second read and will this happen immediately, perhaps slowing down after gobble-reading the first time, or else after putting it on one side and returning to it at a later time? Second readings are sometimes connected to what the content is, but sometimes to such things as the length of the letter and the circumstance in which it has been read the first time. But, whether returned into the envelope or sundered from it, they all have a second read in the sense that the eye falls on them again and perhaps does so again and again, and also the words or some semblance of them reverberate in the mind whenever the letter and its writer is thought of.

If, why, how, when: writing back. The convention is that letters are often part of a longer-term correspondence and presume both response and turn-taking. This is often not true! Letters are one aspect of relationship, and relationships even when people are apart can take different forms and employ different means to ensure their continuity. Letters, for instance, are more often a means of bridging interrupted presence, when people are temporarily separate from those close to them, but with being present with them the ordinary course of things. Also, turn-taking is not necessarily part of the ethics of letter-writing. This depends on the relative position and status of those concerned, like children writing to parents at home when they are away at school or on holiday, or someone just checking in via text-messaging to confirm they are okay and with no expectation of a reply. And anyway the ‘how’ of response can be a meeting in the flesh, a response in a different media than a letter, such as not only text messaging but also email, phone calls, posts on Facebook pages and many more. ‘When’ is also complicated. It needs to be not too long, but also just long enough because over-haste in replying implies something needful perhaps beyond what the writer anticipates or desires.

A PS. Although this discussion of reading a letter has been written as a variant on the essay format, it could equally well start Dear Sara, and finish Love Liz.

Last updated: 15 May 2020