Banana bread, root beer, and weekday night readings – you’re probably at The Book Cellar. If you were there last Wednesday night, you’d have been sitting with me in the tight, country kitchen geometry of their café, listening to Nina Sankovitch (author of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair) read us bits and bobs from her newest book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing.
Sleeve the cheese off the title; the veal inside is good. Signed, Sealed, Delivered is not a simple letter collection reprint or a preachy lament about the lost art of honest-to-God handwriting. Sankovitch has written a memoir interlocked with a historian’s desire to discover people by reassembling – piecemeal – their words, memories, ink blots, and willowy penmanship. The book (and Wednesday’s talk) began with the story that in turn began the book: a steamer trunk of old college letters found inside a writer’s new home. She read us passages from inside that trunk, mostly consisting of a homesick freshman’s thoughts to his mother in the early 1900s. They are the peacefully mundane stuff of daily life: someone is cavorting, someone will study tomorrow, someone is about to receive a tuition bill. But one of those keepsakes, not more than a scribble on a loose page, stands out: “PLEASE DO NOT MOVE THIS CHAIR.”
Why does it resonate? We’ll never know exactly what the sentence means. Maybe an event placeholder, Sankovitch guesses; maybe a boy protective of his favorite seat at the drawing table. But that’s the fun of it – the honesty of a glimpse into a life in-motion. Signed, Sealed, Delivered is about these loose pieces and the impressions of people they leave behind. When you read a writer’s letter, you may learn her secrets, obviously; you may read her insecurities, her catchphrases, her losses and wins. You may, in her words, “fall in love with this stranger” because they seem so like or unlike you. But what’s more lasting, Sankovitch says – what we lose in this technocrat era of attachments and delete keys – is the mistakes. There’s nothing more genuine and vulnerable. When you read a writer’s letter, you see, firsthand, the finger stains and stumbles and misspellings that show there is a human speaking; these are the footprints can’t be backspaced away.
Sankovitch fed listeners spoonfuls of history between readings from Signed, Sealed, Delivered. While the evening was casual with occasional pips of nostalgia, the discussion points dipped into scholarly domains; topics ranged from the literacy of ancient Egyptians, the duties of scribes, Mike Royko’s tender underbelly, and how receiving handwritten letters differs – psychologically and emotionally – from clicking open e-mails.
I’ve been writing and listening in Chicago for several years now, and I still can’t shake the sly twitch I get at public readings. It feels like I’ve got my shotglass to the wall – like grabbing an editor’s peek, furnished with commentary, into an author’s writing process. Listening to Sankovitch, with some kind of glazed Book Cellar cake sticking my fingers together, this feeling was a little like those intimate feelings she described as the experience of reading letters. We heard love letters she’s found, in federal archives and in attics; we heard poignant moments from Martin Ginsburg’s deathbed; we heard her speak wryly on the rude, rambunctious, puckish odes James Joyce dedicated to gassy sex with his wife. This sounds like a Friday class at a liberal arts school. But pretension had no place at The Book Cellar. After trading us her letter stories, Sankovitch invited the audience to share their own.
Full disclosure: I was skeptical. But midway through the night, expecting lectures and waiting for the demonization of the internet generation, I felt a spot ripen in me. I do have a letter story. I have a shoebox full of sealed envelopes my mother, two trimesters swollen, wrote to me – about her day, about the white-plumed cat, about how many colors my father paints the ceiling of what will soon be my room, about sore feet in the seventh month, about things she wanted me to break out of her body and find. It is an ongoing story; I’m not meant to open them until she breaks out of this world, and I hope with every stitch of me that it never happens, but I know it will, and when the weight of being finite begins to flatten my lungs, I remember those letters will be there. My mother will still have something to say. And she will say it straight to me, on wide-ruled notebook paper doodled with tulips and starbursts and fuzzy-haired faces. Maybe, as Sankovitch teases, the joy of this is not about licking the perfect stamp or curling the perfect flourish onto your calligraphic D-e-a-r, but in that letters are infinite. They are a continuous moment, talking to us whenever we uncrease them.
The crux of it all can be boiled down to this: letter writing is not just about emotionality and communication, but about, in Sankovitch’s view, “painting a portrait of ourselves.” I – AIM child, Skype-caller, GrubHub ordering phone-o-phobe – have a letter story, and I bet you do, too. With letters, she explained, we are creating a fragment that will give us voice in the eternal present tense – a place where my mother is always talking to me, where a son is always writing home. And while we may never have an exact image of these writers or their histories, “a letter is gift – to read, reread, answer or ignore if we choose – without the pressure of an immediate action.” This gift is three-pronged and it has no expiration date; it’s in the receiving, in the (re)reading, and in defining our legacies through writing.
One of the joys of letter writing? You can’t keep them from moving your chair. But you can, centuries later, fill it up with a messy, inexact, intimate portrait of you.
EVENT: NINA SANKOVITCH, “SIGNED, SEALED, DELIVERED: CELEBRATING THE JOYS OF LETTER WRITING”| WEDNESDAY, JULY 16, 2014 AT 7PM | THE BOOK CELLAR