Arrived back at Joan’s just in time for dinner. To it came Doris Lessing (you know who she is, a best-selling English writer of the Angry Young school) . . . and, joy of joys, 12-year-old Peter Lessing, who had learned about Benjy’s arrival and has planned his whole Easter vacation around showing Benj London! Peter is a super-nice boy, and he and Benj became bosom friends immediately. He called for Benj early this morning, they got back at 6 p.m., having seen all the science museums, walked for miles all over London, ridden on top of innumerable buses, etc. Peter phoned here at one point to say he decided Benj should “see the West End,” so we thought they were probably having cocktails at the Savoy.”
– Jessica Mitford, in a 1959 letter to her husband.
I am currently working my way through the behemoth that is Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford. It’s a long process, but I’m enjoying it. If I had to choose my favourite Mitford, it’d probably be her so far.
Two major things keep jumping out at me:
1) She did a lot of civil rights work in the States, and – while there are of course major differences – her descriptions of police brutality and general mistreatment towards black Americans in the ’50s feel disturbingly current.
2) Books of letters are often my favourite form of biography. While they are necessarily one-sided (probably because they are one-sided), they can feel the most intimate. I wonder how long this kind of book will survive, considering our society’s almost-certain trudge toward electronic ways of keeping in touch. Of course I have sent “real” letters, but these days, as with millions of others, most of my communication takes place via email. Or worse. My brother and I Skype often, but outside from that we’ve started communicating primarily through the un-searchable, probably un-archived messaging feature in Words With Friends. Imagine someone making a book out of your Words With Friends messages? The HORROR.
I try to be a good emailer, to write an email with the same amount of care as I would a letter, but it doesn’t always happen. They are often shorter than a letter. And, of course, they feel temporary. How long will emailing remain popular? I’m thinking now of the stack of old floppy disks I have in storage in my basement. I no longer have any way to see what’s on those disks. When was the last time you saw an A: drive? That change happened before I even noticed it. I wonder how many of my most important emails will just slip away one day.