When someone says they are interested in finding someone else who has an interest in reading books, I am often tempted to think that such an interest is dying out, that we are a breed of people condemned to the history books, to be recalled in future generations as a strange hoard of old-timers with no conception of reality and modern society. When you add an interest in writing letters to the equation, real letters on real paper, and of those outmoded forms of communication then being sent by hand across the world, I am sure many now, and certainly in the future, will hold their heads in their hands, and wonder how we ever managed to survive. A person who commits their thoughts, their communications, to paper rather than sending them instantly by electronic means is so out of touch with the world, it is hard to imagine the severity of their lives and the difficulties they must bring upon themselves. Everyone who is anyone sends messages by electronic means, communicates in short text messages and uploads their daily, or even hourly, images to Facebook, VK, Instagram and the other social media platforms which have become so commonplace, so popular. The modern human, many have said, lives their life online.
That being the case, I am more than happy not to be a modern human being. I can live with being pushed into the old and forgotten heap and denigrated as a dinosaur destined for extinction. I can accept the fact that when I write to someone, and I do it more than most would imagine, my letter could take a whole week or more to arrive at its destination, and a reply would need an equal length of time. My world – our world, since there needs must be two or more to make the whole work – is not a world of instant gratification, of instant communication. Our world is not one where we stress out when another person doesn’t immediately answer our facile comments and abbreviated electronic messages, or cause us to call them on the telephone after five minutes, or less, to ask whether they received our message. Our world is not one where we could have twenty thousand books saved on a small, hand-held device and claim it as our library, but one where the pleasure of touch, in the case of books, and the intimacies of personal correspondence, in the case of letter writing, takes the upper hand. We are calm and collected, have less stress and fewer concerns, knowing that things will take their time, that there is no urgency, that those we contact have enough time to live life between letters, rather than missing everything, head down, eyes staring at a small screen, waiting for the next beep or buzz as another inane communication crosses the airwaves.
This is, to a certain extent, true and always has been in theory, until we glance back through history and see that impatience has also always been a part of letter writing, just as much as it is of messaging today. The difference is the time span: we are impatient, demanding, much earlier than in the past; our lives must move ever faster, and those who are on the edge of our lives, or closer, are expected to run along with us, keep the same speed, and comply with our wishes without thought to their own needs and desires. Cassandra Fedele wrote, in a short letter to Angelo Poliziano:
I hear that you want to take me to court because I took too long to answer the letter I owed you…
and this, believe it or not, was in April 1494, when letter writing was practically the only means of keeping in touch with others, be they family or acquaintances. Also remarkable here is that a lowly woman, cut out from the normal education system, was writing to one of the most highly regarded men of the times. Today someone of his standing wouldn’t give such a letter, such a person, a second thought. Fedele, however, appears to have been an exception, despite being a mere woman:
I understand that as a woman, not sufficiently learned and of a humble family, it was a great thing that I was sending a letter to you…
as she wrote to Louis XII of France in June 1498, but was unable to accept that her talent in letter writing could be anything but a gift from the gods, and not through intelligence or learning:
a gift for writing and the duty to write were given to me, either by the power of the stars or the councils of men, for the benefit of all humankind.
Can we say the same thing about electronic communication today? Do you think that, one day, all these electronic messages, one hundred and forty characters or whatever, will show us to have been a society of thinkers? Yes, it is convenient, but there are too many people who seem to spend their lives in this convenience phase, and forget that there is so much more to be enjoyed, and the art of letter writing, the reading of books, are high on that list of things to do before we die, along with travelling around the globe as much as is possible considering our limited means. I have to note here, though, that the risks Cassandra Fedele took in writing to the high and mighty of her times did not manage to make a great change in the ideal of female education: the German-born poetess Anna Marie van Schurman was amongst many who, over the coming centuries and through to this day, was forced to defend education for women, although I think we can agree that seventeenth century Europe differed from fifteenth century Europe, even in our enlightened times there are problems and limitations.
I will admit, though, that modern technology has made travelling around the globe much easier than it ever was, even if we do not move from our couches. We can experience foreign lands through the reports of other people, through films and television and, of course, through some forms of correspondence with those who live abroad. Not that there is any substitute for experiencing a foreign country, its traditions and culture for yourself, but for some this is the nearest they will ever come to seeing the sights of Moscow, New York, Berlin, Paris or London.
I have lived in this small town in northern Germany for twenty years now, having done my travelling while I was still young and fit – not that I plan on stopping now, given the chance to travel again – and one of the first things that I learned is that many people have a strong desire to travel abroad, to see other countries or, at the very least, the tourist sections of them, but few know the most basic history of their own home town. My first apartment here was in the oldest part of the town, with houses dating back to the early seventeenth century, and it was difficult to find anyone here who could tell me the most basic information about the town, or even the memorial stones in one of the local parks. I remember feeling extremely frustrated during a visit to one family whose house bordered on the park, and who were in at least the fourth generation. They did not know anything about their home town, its history or significance. I gained the impression that many find their own area boring, not worthy of exploration, but are overwhelmed with curiosity and a taste for exploration when it comes to foreign lands, or even local cities outside the boundaries of their own lives. And I got the impression that these boundaries were very small and tightly held. It is also often the case that people I have written to are keen to know as much as possible about my town, about the many countries I have visited over the years, but cannot reciprocate with tales of their own lives, their own surroundings. They tell me there is nothing going on, nothing of interest in their lives, and forget that I, and everyone else, cannot see their lives, can only experience it through their words and for me, living so far away, having a completely different upbringing, education and other traditions find their ordinary lives fascinating.
My ‘thing’, if you care to call it that, is books; and by books I mean almost any kind covering such a wide range of subjects as is humanly possible. I can literally sit for hours with a series of good books, have no problems finishing one and opening the next straight away, and also find it easy switching from one subject area to another, from fiction to fact. I enjoy being able to lose myself in the world of a good writer, or in the past, or in conjecture when a good philosophical work comes my way. I am as home with Plato as I am with Lori Nelson Spielman , with Cassandra Fedele or William Shakespeare. I am the bane of my local bookshop, who always have to order titles for me; they never have the ones which have struck my interest in stock. But, as you might have guessed, the ones which interest me – aside from Lori Nelson Spielman this week – are unlikely to be in the bestseller lists.
I live in my own house with a cat for company, and we have agreed that I will not mess around with his food or sleeping habits, so long as he doesn’t mess around with my books. The reason for this is quite simple: not all of my books are safely stored on shelves; I am (still) renovating my house and have only recently unpacked the last box of books from my last move. I should have left them packed, not having the shelf space, but there is also something uncomforting about having such wonderful prizes hidden from view, unavailable, almost suppressed. I think I am on my third, and final, collection of books now; having moved so often during the last thirty years or so, it has been impossible to keep many of them and, sad to say, many treasures have found their way into other’s possession. I don’t plan on letting that happen again. Markus Tullius Cicero wrote:
A home without books is a body without soul
And Horace Mann went a step further with his:
A house without books is like a room without windows. No man has a right to bring up his children without surrounding them with books, if he has the means to buy them.
I can quite agree with both of them, and I am sure that my cat is more than satisfied that we have both the warmth of a good book collection, and the view through many windows; and that despite the fact that my cat seems to spend more of his time sleeping than anything else. And, as I am sure you can see from this letter, my interest in books goes further than just the physical act of reading them, or of trying to find shelf space later; there are books which can be lived, which cut themselves into a reader’s mind and memory and influence their thoughts and decisions, and I am one of those people who, when they read, leave the real world behind them. Perhaps not quite as much with a romantic comedy as I would when reading Cicero’s letters or speeches, but even a work of light fiction creates an image in my mind, if the writer is any good at their trade.
What I also greatly enjoy, and this is perhaps the historian in me, is following the art of writing – letters, literature, crime – from its earliest beginnings through to our modern day offerings. It is a fascinating journey: the stiff and fawning letters of diplomats and politicians; the almost mundane asides of famous writers and artists; the everyday concerns of people who lived in what we would now call exciting times. I am, naturally, aware that all ties are exciting if you are in the right place, if you are in the middle of things just as much as when you have the opportunity to watch closely from the sidelines, but seeing how a matter begins, how it works through and then the final outcome from all angles is often far more enlightening. We get to see how culture, etiquette or manners and political and religious policies we know of as everyday life today were formed, how they became traditions, or merely accepted within certain parts of society but not others, and why. It is also interesting to read, if not experience personally, the different sides in a story, not just the people who end up winning and can write their version down for the future, but also those who effectively lost, or had to change and adapt.
Such things, though, are discussion points for the future, once we know where joint interests lie, when we begin to write history ourselves or, also a possibility, a story which will entrap the reader in a world of our making.