Monday, February 4th, 2008
A Western Union telegram from the 1940s. An “I Love You” scribbled in red pen on a book of matches from the late ’90s. A postcard, Post-it note, fraying napkin. An email, text message or string of emoticon. A million IMs. These are the shapes and forms, spanning nearly a century, of the myriad testimonials of the heart and head in Other People’s Love Letters: 150 Letters You Were Never Meant to See, edited by Bill Shapiro.
Shapiro, a longtime magazine editor now overseeing the launch of Life.com for Time, Inc., had his “aha” moment when he spied an old love letter to a woman he was dating—and couldn’t resist prying. “When I saw a note from a guy who used to date the same person I was dating,” he explains, “it got me wondering, Why was it here? Did she bring it out because it was so meaningful to her, or did she want me to see how ephemeral love is? But this guy’s tone—flirty, enthusiastic, playful—was not unlike ones I’d written to her.”
In fact, from the earliest letter (an immaculately penned note that begins “My dearest Lizzy” from a Palmertown, PA, police chief) to one of the most recent (an IM exchange between Cheerio16 and Klounine1), Shapiro found a remarkable consistency: a letter from Vietnam may give way to an IM from Iraq, but the desire of one person to capture the racing of the heart into words remains the same.
Although the changing nature of communication casts print-and-pulp letter writing as an endangered art, Shapiro’s not so sure that the love’s been lost along the way. “To a person, we’re probably writing more than ever before,” he says. “How many letters do you write in a week? Not many. So would you rather get 10 short, sexy texts or one, one-page letter? That’s an impossible question to answer. But when you get a text from someone late at night—it might be just five words—you realize: Wow, she was thinking of me right then.” —Larry Smith
All images reproduced with permission of the author. To see more excerpts from the book, or submit your own love letter, go to Otherpeoplesloveletters.com.