• Image about Books

Thomas Mallon excerpts the private letters of notable figures in his book Yours Ever to give readers intimate -- and often surprising -- glimpses into their lives. By Natalie Danford

IN AN AGE WHEN EVEN E-MAIL is quickly growing outdated in the face of Twitter and texting, receiving a letter still feels special. In Yours Ever: People and Their Letters (Pantheon, $27), Thomas Mallon, the author of seven novels and a book on diary writing, samples personal communication written by public figures and examines why, even in the age of technology, letter writing continues to be something sacred.

Rather than reprinting entire letters, Mallon plucks the choicest bits to include, and he groups the correspondences by category. There are letters of friendship, letters of advice, and confessional letters. There are even chapters dedicated to epistles penned in prison and during war.

Yours Ever contains so many terrifically quotable lines that it would be impossible to choose a favorite. Over and over, well-known figures reveal ¬previously hidden sides through their words. The notes that beat icon Neal Cassady wrote to his wife while serving in California’s San Quentin State Prison after attempting to sell marijuana to an undercover police officer are predictably full of jittery wordplay. But the letters he wrote to his children (who were kept in the dark about his whereabouts during his jail stint) are disarmingly sweet and bourgeois, or as Mallon describes them, “gently, touchingly pedantic, full of vocabulary builders and math problems and explanations of the Four Freedoms.”

Other letters in the book induce the kind of nostalgic hindsight usually inspired by one’s own old love letters; for example, there’s Richard Nixon’s disgruntled May 1971 memo to his chief of staff H.R. Haldeman in which he notes, “ ‘What I want everybody to realize is that as we approach the election we are in a fight to the death for the big prize.’ ”

Mallon strings together these and other examples ably, and the letters themselves are wonderful -- by turns poignant and shocking, amusing and moving. The only criticism is that their arrangement feels episodic rather than accumulative toward some larger meaning; the book is a survey rather than a treatise (and Mallon never claims otherwise).

Unsurprisingly, writers craft great letters, as is proven time and time again throughout the book. But often, the sentiments they express can be unexpected. Charles Dickens sighs that because his work is sympathetic to the poor, he is the recipient of “ ‘begging letters’ ” from people “ ‘dirtying the stream of true benevolence.’ ” He derides the typical requests, such as “ ‘a greatcoat, to go to India in; a pound, to set him up in life for ever; a pair of boots, to take him to the coast of China; a hat, to get him into a permanent situation under Government.’ ” Based on the comments of Dickens and others, lamenting their lot is a favorite pastime of writers. However, only the best do so as entertainingly as British poet Philip Larkin, who compared the act of publishing a book to passing gas at a party: “ ‘You have to wait till people stop looking at you before you can behave normally again.’ ”