On Writing and Receiving Letters


photo via amazon


Among the many correspondences in Oliver Sacks’ memoir On the Move: A Life is an exchange of letters with evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould, whom he had not yet met.


Gould ends his letter:


   Funny how once you get in contact with someone you wanted to meet for years, you begin to see things you want to discuss with him everywhere.


Stephen Jay Gould


Gould and Sacks would only meet two years later for a series of television interviews. But when the producer asked Sacks if he knew Gould, he replied, “I’ve never met him, although we’ve corresponded. But nonetheless, I think of him as a brother.” (Gould said the same thing of Sacks when asked).



photo by Bill Hayes via newyorker.com


This exchange, and the excerpts of letters throughout this engaging memoir, reminded me of the handwritten letters I have written and received in my life (the fact that they wrote for two years without meeting reminded me of the blogging relationships we form).


Fortunately, I have kept some of those wonderful letters written by family and close friends. Occasionally, I will reread a letter my grandmother sent me. Just seeing her handwriting allows me to hear her voice, imagine her hands even.




This one starts off wonderfully simple: I am writing to you to give you news of no importance, but . . . it pleases me.  It’s about geraniums; …


In other letters, she recounts her morning visit (the new great grandson, how exciting!), her thoughts on life moving to the city after the death of my grandfather, and, of course, the books she was reading. She passed away a few years ago, and these letters transport me back much more than a photograph will.


I do like emails and texts, don’t get me wrong; there can be an immediate intimacy to a series of texts with a friend in another country that defies all time zones.


And yet, I think I will start writing letters again.


Correspondence is also a major part of my life. On the whole, I enjoy writing and receiving letters – it is an intercourse with other people, particular others – and I often find myself able to write when I cannot “write,” whatever Writing (with a capital W) means. I keep all the letters I receive, as well as copies of my own.

– Oliver Sacks