I love a good year-end list. The picks, the pans—I enjoy any accounting of the year’s best and worst movies, the best and worst music, and especially the best and worst literature. It’s particularly exciting when respected authors offer up their favorite books of the year. These are the books I look for immediately. The year-end list feels like a particularly intimate form of communication from a writer, as it offers a glimpse into what the writer likes to ponder.
But then comes January. The year-end lists are gone (although I have a stack of books in my reading pile, thanks to all the good recommendations, including some names of writers who were new to me).
Me, I’d like to sustain the dialogue past Dec. 31 and throughout the year. Social media can be a help, but often we use it for self-promotion and forget to share exciting new work and writers. I would love nothing more than to have deeper, more important conversations about the writing that is meaningful to me.
In the not-so-distant past, correspondence was a vibrant part of a life of letters. I think of that famous letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Walt Whitman on the publication of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Emerson famously penned, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely of fortifying and encouraging.” Emerson told Whitman that he wanted to drop everything and come to see him in order to pay his respects.
Today, @HeresWaldo would have tweeted @BeautifulUncutHairofGraves to say, “Killer book for a rather ‘green’ poet, LOL.” Something, perhaps, is lost here.
This correspondence was far from singular. Other famous literary pen pals included Edith Wharton and Henry James, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, Alice Walker and Langston Hughes, nd of course Rainer Maria Rilke and Franz Xaver Kappus—better known as the Young Poet.
Ephemera—those items, typically written or printed, that are intended only for short-term importance—is a hot collectible, and author correspondence is often a hot auction item. But it’s funny. Today we write more words than ever, but once converted to pixels, they somehow seem even more ephemeral. Once we hit “send,” they disappear.
So I offer up my own list here—seven ways we might open up and attempt to sustain more important, fulfilling dialogue. It’s not a list of things I do; it’s an aspirational list of practices I’d like to establish.
1. Write book reviews. So many small-press titles are ignored entirely by reviewers. It can be hard to get the major reviewing outlets to notice a poetry collection from a small independent press. If we fall in love with a book, we should tell other people about it. The sad fact is that books with small press runs and no attention from reviewers can die on the vine before they ever find their audience.
2. Sing the praises of excellent new voices. Talk them up to friends; post about them on social media. I know that I like to discuss poetry collections I like, rather than ones I dislike; there’s very little sense in recommending that readers ignore a book they were going to ignore anyway, statistically speaking.
3. Engage in discussions on Goodreads, Amazon, and similar outlets that already exist for this purpose.
4. Be a fan. Write authors a letter or postcard and let them know how highly you regard them. I wrote a fan letter only once, to William Matthews, a favorite poet of mine, now deceased. He wrote me back—real words, in his own handwriting, starting with “Dear Karen.” I treasure the postcard; I love knowing that in a particular moment in time, as that felt marker touched the card, I was “dear” to someone who remains enduringly dear to me.
5. Put yourself in a position to talk about the life of letters. Use the time when you could be posting online about The Bachelor to sit in front of a fire and share your favorite selections of whatever you’re reading right now. You don’t need a formal book club, complete with discussion questions; you just need friends who also love the written word.
6. Read aloud to the people you love. Then talk about the words that briefly inhabited the air and that you breathed in and made part of your good, red blood.
7. Read. Spend a little less time working, a little less time vegging out with electronics, a little less time cleaning the house, and just read writing—particularly the new stuff. Form an opinion. Memorize passages. Think. A life of letters starts, after all, in the mind, and there’s no better path in than through a book.