- On Letters of Note:The Internet’s Idea of History
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Letters of Note, a five-year-old blog run by Shaun Usher, is now a book. The blog offers correspondence “deserving of a wider audience” (as its tagline runs). When possible, Usher’s blog presents the letters in their original scans, preserving the quaint typewriter fonts, pretty letterheads, and handwritten annotations of their paper selves. This project is popular: The Letters of Note Twitter feed has an estimated 175,000 followers, and its Facebook page has been liked upwards of 73,000 times.
Letters of Note is an influential player in a new school of popular history shaped by the particular constraints of the internet. While popular history in book and documentary form has long tended toward narrative, viral history selects for single, supercharged documents: blasts from the past, given a hit of authenticity by the digital format, which allows readers to encounter the document (almost) firsthand and then pass it along immediately.
I’ve been running Slate’s history blog, the Vault, for the past two years. Like Usher, I’m in the business of selecting historical documents that are optimized to enter the internet’s bloodstream, be fruitful, and multiply. (In fact, I’ve often found a letter I’ve thought to write about on my blog, only to type its information into Google and see that Usher got to it first.) All of my misgivings about the format and content of this book are worries I’ve had about my own work at Slate, and should therefore be taken as something of a mea culpa.
The book Letters of Note—a beautiful object, well-presented—is fun to read. How could it not be? It’s all of the wheat of historical research, none of the chaff. Star moments for me included Aldous Huxley’s widow’s account of his LSD-assisted death; Beethoven’s letter to his brothers, explaining how his deafness had affected his attitude toward other people; and Victorian missionary Lucy Thurston’s 1855 account of a mastectomy undergone without anesthesia. Reflecting the Web’s scattershot approach, the letters are all mixed up in the book, arranged in no discernable order, whether chronological or thematic. The reader will encounter them, as the browser has, in totally random fashion, disconnected from any timeline.
The letters contain the telltale marks of their internet origins. Internet history, including the Letter of Note, must conform to a set of rules determined by the hope of traveling across social media. Because sharing a document requires aligning your name and profile with the document’s content, items are most [End Page 222] shareable when their meanings are directly legible in the space of a tweet or a Facebook post. This is a key structural limitation: Only those gems that can be well-headlined, with display text that conveys their essential meaning immediately, will travel.
One strategy to maximize headline appeal is to find items that represent an ideal of universal humanity. For Letters of Note, this means letters in which the writer seems to reach out across the centuries and grab you by the collar, hailing you as semblable and frère. When readers retweet these links, they inevitably add commentary to this effect: “Looks like nothing ever changes!” For example, the Letters of Note book includes a hilarious letter from Charles Lamb to Bernard Barton, in 1824, describing the bad effects of a lingering cold: “I am flatter than denial or a pancake; emptier than Judge Parke’s wig when the head is in it; duller than a country stage when the actors are off it; a cipher, an o!” Another entry along these lines is a form letter that ninth-century Chinese bureaucrats used to apologize for having been drunk at a party.
Some such letters allow us to feel common cause with people we admire who, once upon a time, had to send well-written notes to the New Yorker asking for a job (Eudora Welty) or spam a powerful politician with an unsolicited description of skills in siege warfare (Leonardo da Vinci). The early...