Letter from the Editor
A few days ago, trying to restore a measure of order, I brought a stack of boxes from the garage into the house. My plan—part of an ongoing, not to say endless, project—was to weed out some books, creating room in the garage that could then be occupied by some of the books currently in the house. In the course of the day, along with many boxes loaded with books, I encountered a couple of caches of other things. One box, its contents neatly identified, held issues of American Poetry Review from the mid-1970s to the mid-'80s. (Most of the issues since then are somewhere else in the house or the garage; the most recent issues are close to hand.) The earliest issue I have, March/April 1975, featured George Oppen, a poet I continue to love. Holding that issue and others in my hands—in many cases with flashes of memory across the decades—provoked a tangle of emotions, above all a sense of the strangeness of time.
Another box was full of file folders. For many years, I bought these at stationery stores in various colors, filling them with newspaper clippings, articles from the NYRB, the TLS, and such, photocopies (oh, the hours I spent making copies), and all sorts of odds and ends (for instance, bookmarks from the House of Fiction, the store my late friend Bill Tunilla presided over in Pasadena, California, and my favorite bookstore ever). Many of the folders I accumulated over the years were labeled ("Muriel Spark," "Korean Immigration," and so on); others were miscellanies from a particular slice of time. That practice continued for the first few years after we moved to the Midwest, in 1994, but I largely abandoned it thereafter.
Most of the folders in this box dated from the '80s, chiefly from the first half of the decade, and none of them were labeled. I started to go through them. Here were reviews I'd written 25 years ago and more—on Thomas Bernhard, Guy Davenport, and Octavio Paz, among others—many of them, alas, published in great obscurity. Here were hard-to-read photocopies from a "Memorial Number" of The Baptist Banner (Bradford, Pennsylvania) dated April 15, 1906, with a handwritten note from my mother attached: "Here is the material on my [paternal] grandfather Laraway," it began. The lengthy obituary she'd sent summarized the life of Watson W. Laraway, born in 1847 in Cayuga County, New York. "I hope to do research as to his own antecedents someday," my mom wrote.
Here was an issue of Bethel Focus (February 1982), published by Bethel College (now Bethel University) & Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota, with an article by Daniel Taylor (whose essay-review on the English castle appeared recently in Books & Culture). "In calling for Christians to read, and to read the best," Dan wrote, "I am not appealing to our sense of snobbery but to our sense of survival."
And then, interleaved with articles and reviews and all manner of ephemera, there were the letters, from friends and relatives still living and from others who have crossed over. One letter—headed "October 20, 1982 (The Feast of Payday)"—came from a friend diagnosed in 2012 with a relatively rare form of cancer. I can't say time vanished as I read this letter—more than a page and a half, single-spaced, not at all unusual for a letter then. On the one hand, here was my friend's voice just as I heard it 30 years ago; on the other hand, the passage of time charged his words with a sense of the uncanny.
Who would have guessed—when this letter and the others I came across were written—that the practice of letter-writing would so soon fade? Is it self-indulgent, an exercise in nostalgia, to think about reviving it, even if only on a modest scale? Must the conveniences and the customs of email, text-messaging, Twitter, and the like ruthlessly eliminate letter-writing, except among a few cranks, or can the old and the new coexist?
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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