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paean to letterwriting, but don't trust the etiquette advice
on April 8, 2003
Average five stars and one star, and you get three stars. If you've heard of delectable cookbooks being referred to as "food porn," you'll understand why I might refer to the first four chapters of The Art of the Handwritten Note as "stationery porn." Shepherd describes beautifully why and how to handwrite a variety of notes and letters. I've written hundreds myself and can vouch for the soundness of her advice. And I love reading different authors on the beauties of pens and papers, as I am one of those addicts.
However, in Chapter Five, "Opportunities to Write the Note That Counts," she goes seriously astray in discussing the etiquette of letter writing. She presents her own preferences as etiquette rules, when they certainly aren't. For instance, one does not need to write thank-you letters when gifts are exchanged in person, though it is a nice touch. And one sample shows a thank-you letter for a baby shower gift signed by - ugh! - the baby. The text contradicts this sample letter, saying "You write these as the parent, acknowledging your gratitude for gifts given to your children, until the children learn to write for themselves," but the lack of captions for the sample letters makes one wonder if this was supposed to be an example of misguided cuteness. But then she says you can phone or email these thanks instead. No, no, no!
And a "printed card in the mail or an announcement in the newspaper" to respond to condolence notes? Hardly! She even allows "frank" responses to gifts one doesn't like, suggesting that you may ask the giver to exchange it for you - WHAT IS SHE THINKING??
"Dear Lytton, I already own the volume of Miss Eden's letters which you so kindly sent, but perhaps you could exchange it for a copy of `The Princesse de Cléves,' which I do not yet have. Yrs., Virginia" -- Oh yes, your family and friends are just going to love getting THOSE sort of letters.
However, at the end there are some (intentionally) funny lists of "do's" and "don't's" for such categories as breakup notes and notes requesting help. In the phrases to use and avoid in fan letters, for example, she sagely advises the letter writer to say, "I have every one of your books," but don't say, "I bought your book for a dollar from a store that sells rejects."
This could have stayed a five-star book if the author had researched the etiquette of correspondence. Nobody but Miss Manners gets to just "make stuff up," and even Miss Manners uses that right sparingly. What one feels is natural and right may not always coincide with what one should do correctly, and I do wish the author had taken the time to learn the difference.