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Woog's World / Westporter's tribute to letter writing, a fading rite of human contact

Published 7:33 am, Sunday, April 20, 2014
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As a child growing up in Illinois, Nina Sankovitch always wrote letters. She corresponded regularly with her cousins. "Pen pals," she called it.

She and her friends went off to colleges around the country. Letters kept them connected. This was the 1980s -- not long ago, really -- but, Sankovitch recalls, there were no phones in dorm rooms. Long distance calls -- via pay phones -- were expensive. Stamps were cheap.

But three years ago, as her son Petey Menz graduated from Staples and got ready to head to Harvard, Nina realized he might not be as faithful a letter writer as she'd been. She gave him a box, with cards and stamps. He did write -- occasionally. He also enjoyed going to the mailbox, and checking for her letters.

Her second son, Michael, is different. He's a few miles up the road, at Yale, but his disinterest in letters is less about distance than lifestyle. "Why don't you just call?" he asks. He never checks his mailbox.

Sankovitch still writes her parents, who now live in New York City. She is aware, however, that letter writing has become an increasingly lost art. Except for thank-you and condolence notes, and (sometimes) holiday cards, sending handwritten messages from one mailbox to another is nearly as rare as picking up a rotary phone to call a party line.

Sankovitch is not alone in lamenting the lack of letter writing. But she's done something to address it (ho ho). Using another dying medium -- the printed page -- she's written a book."Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing" was published this week by Simon & Schuster.

Sankovitch's first book -- "Tolstoy and the Purple Chair" -- celebrated the year she read one book a day (and blogged about each). Now, she shifts from reading to writing.

The idea began in the late 1990s. Sankovitch was the new owner of an old house. Clearing the yard, she found a steamer trunk filled with hundreds of handwritten letters.

Most were from someone named James to his mother. They spanned several decades, from his youth in the late 19th century through adulthood in the 1930s.

When James was at Princeton (1908-1912), he wrote daily -- sometimes more. (Mail was delivered twice a day, allowing for almost-but-not-quite real-time conversations.)

Sankovitch wanted to write a book about James' letters. But with three children under the age of 6 and an old house to renovate, the time to write was wrong.

When her oldest son was leaving for college, Sankovitch revisited the letters. This time, her focus was different: What had changed about letter writing, from James' time at Princeton to Petey's at Harvard, a century later?

The result is an insightful, artful and (of course) well-"written" book about the power of letters. Sankovitch looks at the history of letter writing, from ancient Egyptians (who used special scribes, because most could not read or write) to the medieval lovers Abelard and Heloise. She explores the correspondence of Edith Wharton and Henry James.

One intriguing example involves President Lincoln. His very moving condolence letters to survivors of soldiers killed in the Civil War are well known. But he received plenty of letters too, particularly after his son Willie died in the White House. Many writers referred to the deaths of their own children, offering a glimpse at a different -- but not altogether far away -- era.

Sankovitch's favorite letter sounds ordinary, but it encapsulates so much: thankfulness, a window into one individual's life, and universality. A woman in Kansas wrote Thomas Edison, thanking him for the gift of electricity. Washing clothes and listening to her Victrola made life so easy, she said.

As Sankovitch wrote, she realized that the impact of letter writing goes far beyond putting words on paper. One example: privacy. Letters, she says, "are just about the last rights respected by our government. They go into our email and have records of our phone calls. But they don't go into our mailbox."

She adds, "What's nice about letters is the waiting period. No one expects an immediate response. So you send it off, then you go live your life. That time in between is valuable. You can reflect. Communication is heightened when we don't do it all the time."

She worries about the effects of our digital age -- not just on our lack of reflection (has anyone not been burned by sending a too-quick email?), but on the written records we will no longer have. Letters last. Pixels may not.

Sankovitch talks about her book -- and letter writing -- at Barnes & Noble at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 24, and at the Westport Library on at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 4. If you like what you hear, don't just say so. Drop her a note.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.