When's the last time you wrote a letter? A real letter, on paper, written by hand or using a typewriter, maybe, that you sent in a stamped envelope through the mail?
The lost art of letter writing inspired Shaun Usher to launch the blog Letters of Note in 2009. Then a frustrated advertising copywriter ("Don Draper I most certainly was not," he told the Los Angeles Times last year), Usher has since become a captain of correspondence, an expert of the epistolary.
On Twitter, Letters of Note has 193,000 followers. A first book, "Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience," was crowdfunded in England and published in America last year by Chronicle Books.
Today marks the U.S. publication of a second book, "Lists of Note: An Eclectic Collection Deserving of a Wider Audience," with contents proving that listmaking didn't begin with the Internet: There are ancient Egyptians' reasons for missing work and Johnny Cash's to-do list ("1. Not smoke. 2. Kiss June. 3. Not kiss anyone else.")
There are also live shows. Letters Live readings (done in partnership with Simon Garfield, author of "To the Letter") have a rotating linup of materials and stars, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Fry, Gillian Anderson, Jude Law, Russell Brand, Ben Kingsley, Ian McKellan, Nick Cave, Dominic West, Louise Brealey, Caitlin Moran and Neil Gaiman. So far, they've been performed in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, but haven't made it across the Atlantic.
That changes tonight, when Letters Live makes its American debut in Los Angeles. The event, called Tell Me a Story, is a benefit for 826LA on the literacy organization's 10th anniversary. Jimmy Kimmel will host; Aimee Mann will sing; and J.J. Abrams, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Brad Hall, Miranda July, Dave Eggers, Thandie Newton and B.J. Novak will read letters. Expect additional readers -- that is, if you can get in. Tickets are available, at this hour, only by making a direct inquiry with 826LA.
Videos of some of the Letters Live performances are online, with a few extras by Cumberbatch and Brealey. They show how letters can be intimate, forlorn, and funny, sometimes all at once. The selections that Usher finds often show how personal the connection seems to be between the letter writer and its recipient, something that in our billard of email and text messages seems diluted, if not lost.
Usher has a knack for discovering letters (and lists, etc.) that reveal an unexpected side of a well-known figure. Because it's Bloomsday, here's a favorite -- it's Carl Jung writing about James Joyce's "Ulysses" in 1932:
"I read to page 135 with despair in my heart, falling asleep twice on the way," Jung wrote. "The incredible versatility of Joyce's style has a monotonous and hypnotic effect. Nothing comes to meet the reader, everything turns away from him, leaving him gaping after it. The book is always up and away, dissatisfed with itself, ironic, sardonic, virulent, contemptuous, sad, despairing, and bitter [...] Yes, I admit I feel have been made a fool of. The book would not meet me half way, nothing in it made the least attempt to be agreeable, and that always gives the reader an irritating sense of inferiority."