It is fair to say my time is, indeed, taken up with many things – including the dinner parties and meetings or discussions with friends that you mention in your letter – but also so arranged that I always have time to receive and read letters, and then make time to write a half-way decent reply. We are all strangers until we get to know one another, and it is the getting to know another personal, the gradual revelations, which make letter writing so enjoyable, so absorbing. It is also this early period, when we are just feeling our way and trying to find some form of connection to the other person, which I was referring to in my comments about the acceptance of letters, the chance of someone writing back again. First letters always tend to be very self-centred, since we do not yet know what interests our potential partner, and so have to bring out all the things which interest us first, in the hope that they will than latch onto one or two interests which meet their own. Since my main interests are photographic collection, history and philosophy, it is very difficult to inspire other people to reply: my interests are seen as far too intellectual and deep and removed from the realities of life.
At the same time, were I to write about the more mundane things in life, the daily events which repeat themselves from one day, one week to the next, it would be considered boring and tedious, and not worth continuing a conversation. There needs to be, to my way of thinking, something for the other person to bite on, something to inspire them, something to make them want to take up pen or pencil and write a reply. Even after thirty-five years of writing letters, I cannot say what the right balance is, what works and what should be forgotten, as each person receiving a letter is an individual with greatly different needs, expectations, and experiences. The style of writing a letter, as you point out, makes a big difference too. I sit down and write without going back over what I have written other than to check for spelling. There is no editing, no additions or removals to make something appear better, or to flow in a certain manner. My thoughts come down on paper as they are in my head, and that is then my letter. Many of those who teach the idea of letter writing claim that a person must make a list of what they wish to write about, that there must be a beginning, a middle part, and an end. I was taught this in school as well, back in the dark and distant days when letter writing was part of the English curriculum, and I ditched it very quickly indeed. I can appreciate the need for some people to plan their works, but we’re not writing a novel, and a letter should, to my way of thinking, be a free set of thoughts and reactions, rather than a planned essay in an envelope.
My only concession to a formal form of letter writing is that I sometimes take a quotation – especially if I do not yet know the person I am writing to – and use the ideas created by the words of others to form a basis or foundation for what I am writing. Once the first reply arrives, hopefully with a good deal of interesting content, this necessity recedes, and that form of inspiration is taken over by the letter in front of me rather than the ideas of someone far removed. But I suspect that most of my letters which do not receive a reply overwhelm the recipient. What I write is not what they expect, not what they are used to, far too old-fashioned. We live in an era of short messages and texts, words which can be quickly tapped out with thumbs on a screen, and not a time when people are prepared to settle down for an hour and write lengthy sentences with thoughts and experiences. The “bone thrown” to entice a person to write back comes much later in a relationship, as far as I have experienced it so far. Once the correspondents have seen what sort of writing is involved, which subjects are of interest, then the real challenges begin, then the events of real life begin to take their place on the paper and we learn as much about a person’s surroundings and daily life as we do about their thoughts and deeper interests.
Your quotation has been attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt:
Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.
There is a slightly older one which covers much more, and comes from an Englishman called Charles Stewart who, in his autobiography, writes, recalling a dinner party conversation, that one of the guests claimed:
Men and women range themselves into three classes or orders of intelligence: you can tell the lowest class by their habit of always talking about persons; the next by the fact that their habit is always to converse about things; the highest by their preference for the discussion of ideas.
When we take this as orders of intelligence it is slightly limited. I would rather mix the orders of intelligence with the opportunities for learning and conversation to give it a better rounding off. Coupled, of course, with the company one enjoys: there is little point discussing the great ideas of our times with someone who does not have the same capacity for thought.
You know, of course, that this “talking about persons” refers to those who spend all their time gossiping, passing on tales about other people and trying to make themselves better by appearing to be above someone else’s habits. And this is a wonderful example of how the idea of classes of intelligence works, since many people in the social upper classes tend to spend their time gossiping, but would wish to be considered in the talking about ideas category; certainly as far as many have presented themselves in autobiographies and published letters. Social class has nothing to do with intelligence.
I’m not sure whether talking about your goals in life really does lower your motivation to achieve. Perhaps it has more to do with who you discuss these ideas with, as there are many people who will instantly play an idea down, or claim to know that it will not work, place barriers and obstacles in front of you which seem almost to be permanent and insurmountable. At the same time I do feel that a person who works on their ideas, quietly or with one or two trusted others, has a greater chance of success in the long run.
That is not to say that a person shouldn’t discuss their ideas or the actions of their neighbours. As you say, if we start cutting things out of the conversation, what else is there to talk about? But a good and healthy mixture of all these things is, perhaps, the best way to go. I cannot imagine a dinner, and I have been to many, where there is only one subject being talked about between two people, it would be exceptionally boring. Rather, the subject can begin with small talk, and then expand to greater things, then revert to the weather, politics, literature, whatever. A good, healthy mixture.
I suspect that your father, in badgering you to read more, definitely had your best interests at heart. Not all of us can go to dinner parties, of course, but we all have the chance to enter into conversation, to discuss the world and its ways with other people either in person, across a good meal with a decent wine, or in writing. There are those who believe they can get everything they need in life from the short messages on Twitter, or from photographs of food on Instagram, or even travel the world by watching television. All of these things are very short-lived, in my opinion. We push lower quality films and documentaries into our brains as fast as we can, but start to mix them all together since there is so much information – but only information which has been carefully edited in order to sell it – and believe we have seen all there is to see. Books, literature or non-fiction, tend, in my opinion, to take us much deeper into the ways of the world, into the ideas which are streaming around us. Of course they are also edited with a view to being sold, but not to the same extent. A book tends to make us interested in finding out more about a subject, reading more from that author, learning and finding out what other people think about what we have read.
I have also discovered that books tend to be very good conversation starters too. One of the great advantages of living alone is that I can do whatever I wish with my time. I can wash the dishes, surf the internet, read a book, go out for a meal or to the cinema, a museum whenever I wish. There is no one else I need to check with, no one else’s plans I need to fit in with. For reading books and writing letters, this is an absolutely ideal situation too. Of late I have taken myself out and travelled into Bremen for a meal, to meet up with friends, or just to wander around the streets and see what is on offer in the shops. In the evenings I sit down to a meal and glass of wine in one of the restaurants, and get my book out to read while waiting for my meal, or even while eating it. Everywhere I go people then try to see what I am reading. On quite a few occasions absolute strangers have begun talking to me about books in general, or about the author I happen to be reading at the time. This has happened several times when I have been reading works by Haruki Murakami, who I discovered quite recently, who most people have never heard of but, because of the name, find an interest in. I also recently had an interesting, if short, conversation about the streets of Paris, as I was reading Walburga Hülk’s book on Napoleon III, Der Rausch der Jahre.
I’m not sure whether these conversations would fall within the realm of discussions on ideas or somewhere else within these categories. The ideas have, after all, been worked through to produce a finished product, but they also contain stories about people – real or otherwise – which we could almost put down as being gossip. Admittedly, the gossip on private lives written by Murakami is fiction which is, perhaps, better than that written by Whitney Scharer in Die Zeit des Lichts, which is a fictionalised work on the Surrealist photographer Lee Miller. I find the imagining of a real person’s sex life very disturbing.
We can’t all have a constantly exciting life, you are quite right there. Most of us have one or two events which interest other people, and then the rest is a simple living of ordinary, everyday events. The idea that someone’s life must be fascinating simply because of where they live always throws me. Those who imagine that a person must have a great life because they rent an apartment in New York seem to have a very limited worldview, in my opinion. On the other hand, I have also recently met people who live in the Big City of Bremen, and cannot imagine what it must be like to exist in a smaller city, as I do, and still have the energy and desire to get up in the morning. They complain about the lack of things to do within their own living areas, but then play down what I have in mine, and that even though they have never heard of my town. The big thing I heard recently – at a social gathering rather than a dinner party! – was the number of people who wanted to leave Bremen and move to Hamburg or Munich because it is bigger and has more on offer. My impression was that they must go through the streets of their home town with their eyes closed. Either that or they honestly believe that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, and that every other city which is bigger than their own has a better life possibility than where they are now. And I find it amusing that people turn up their noses at my life. I live in a small town and can travel, with ease, to three major cities at will. By living in the smaller town I save on living costs, have considerably less stress, and can still do exactly what I wish to do with my life. Is that not the ideal way to live?
Your last words also struck a note with me, and I am in full agreement: there are interesting people right where we are, we don’t need to send our letters ten thousand miles around the world to find them. But how many people believe that? Somewhere else is always far more interesting than where we are, and where we are has more problems than anywhere else in the world. I hear people talking about moving to Munich or Hamburg because they do not want the expense of living in Bremen, and ask myself where they get this idea from that Munich and Hamburg are cheaper? Or that New York and London, Madrid and Paris are better? We can have the best possible life exactly where we are, if we’re prepared to look, to explore, to travel and to communicate rather than just moan and denigrate.