13 May 2010

COOL BOOK: More than Words

More than Words: Illustrated Letters from the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art.  Lisa Kirwin.  NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2005.  ISBN:  1568985231.

Although the exhibit for More than Words was mounted some five years ago, I only recently came across the exhibition book as a bookstore remainder (half price!).  I have a small collection of books about illustrated letters, but this one is by far the best of them.  The descriptive text is eloquent but kept to a minimum; the images are distinctly and vividly printed; the pages are made of a paper that is hefty, smooth, and a delight to handle; and there is an appendix with full transcriptions for each letter (printed on a softer paper in blue ink).

The type of drawings and the quality of their sketching varies.  Some are carefully crafted, some are cartoon-like, and some are similar to those seen in the modern urban sketchers movement. Their purpose varies as well.  One writer, separated from his fiancee for over a year as he travels to Europe, woos her charmingly and almost daily, with illustrations of himself acting out the cultural flavor each new locale.  Another author, writing to a potential publisher, coyly includes a well-sketched self portrait as an example of his work.  

The transcriptions in the appendix are jewels.  Not all vintage (one letter was posted in 1963), they capture not simply eras but moments and personalities.  They are legacies each one, though minute.  So strongly present is the sense of making: of friendships, of connections, of the letters themselves. 

The final paragraph of the Introduction urgently notes the loss of these material treasures that are "all but disappearing from our culture."  I am less convinced that this is so.  The Mail Art movement has been running strong for half a century now.  I've been more regularly coming across websites dedicated to either mail art or letter writing specifically (see below). And the Maker Movement, the Steampunk movement, and rise of elaborate cosplay events all bespeak a yearning for solid, physical and playful culture that is being energetically acted upon. Twenty-first century letter writers are not so much looking looking back as creating their own legacies of now.

"Letters are the great fixative of experience. 
Time erodes feeling. 
Time creates indifference. 
Letters prove to us that we once cared. 
They are the fossils of feeling."

[Journalist Janel Malcolm, from page xviii] 

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Fellow lovers of letter writing may be found at these sites.

Though the posting for the project is a few months old, I have recently connected  with several people who listed themselves here.


Going strong since pre-Internet days (1982), the Letter Exchange is a paper-mail source for people looking for pen friends. One can buy single issues, subscribe for a full year, or buy back issues.  To get one's own listing in the mag, one has to be a subscriber.  But anyone can write to the folks listed (via an secure, resend option provided by the Exchange folks that protects the private info of the subscribers).


For a small fee ($3) your name is put into a database from which you can request a pen friend.  A nice bonus for joining is access to some free download stationery, an Alliance ID card, and a badge.

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