Any big plans for the new year???
Click here to go see the bonus panel!
You can tell how self-confident an author is by the ratio of words in their non-fiction publications to number of citations.
Tradition is a weak reason to continue things that are echoes of a truly awful past.
Ty the Guy OUT!
When you compare the outfit that minstrel show player above is wearing and the shapes of light/dark in the face above….to THIS common image of Mickey Mouse below…
….a beloved children’s character suddenly becomes part of a ghastly, terrifying “tradition” that starts bringing up the lunch.
I only really began to look into this recently, after hearing a tossed off joke about it on the Samantha Bee show this week.
Disney has known about this for every minute of the last ninety years and they’re fine with it. No big redesign since the early Minstrel Show roots:
Bugs Bunny is certainly aware of his roots as well. There’s PLENTY of disgusting stuff in the Warner Brothers/ Bugs Bunny library that never played on your TV when you were a kid, because of how awful it was.
THE CHARACTER ON THE LEFT IS LITERALLY NAMED “BOSKO THE NEGRO BOY”.
These images are quite tame compared to what’s out there.
“It was a different time.” That’s usually how the tradition is excused.
So let’s leave the tradition to another time.
Krazy Kat was created by George Herriman…who was black, by the way.
Make sense out of that.
- Sandra: Well, I’m glad you guys were so honest with each other. Nothing’s worse than someone getting the wrong idea.
- Luna: Yes.
- Benjamin: That’s right.
- Luna: Benny, could you please repeat your answer to Larisa’s question? I didn’t quite catch it because Sandra was screaming so loud.
- Sandra: L-u-n-a!!
Okay, so I don’t blame the hotel guy, who was probably a wonderful person and didn’t deserve my condescension. But when you’re not from the area, and you don’t see the slave cabins as the asterisk to the plantation experience, but the centre of it, his response was shocking. Those places are ground zero for the American holocaust, and the idea of planning a wedding there is horrifying to me, no matter how lovely the house and grounds are.
When you’re raised to see the anchoring crime at the bedrock of your history as a minor detail, a passing footnote, a blip in an otherwise lovely thing, you’re unconsciously part of the problem, I’m sorry to say.
I’m sure he didn’t mean anything. He just didn’t know.
Ty the Guy OUT!
New Orleans has given the world a number of lovely comic book heroes…
Monica Rambeau was a New Orleans resident before becoming the second most-named-Avenger-ever, Photon/ Pulsar/ Spectrum/ Captain Marvel. (MPD Super-hero Hank Pym tops the list with seven names.)
N’Awlins gets to claim the Ragin’ Cajun as well.
Is there anything more wonderful than the Atomic Knights in the French Quarter? You’ll notice there’s no signs in the background for strip clubs, jazz halls and palm readers, so I don’t know what part of the quarter they’re in…
For another story from that same trip to New Orleans, click the Scissors Bunny above (settle in, this is a long story).
My film-school friends Todd Luoto and Jon Frechette have been working for a few years now on a documentary about the mysterious urban legend video game POLYBIUS.
Polybius is an arcade cabinet described in an urban legend, which is said to have induced various psychological effects on players. The story describes players suffering from amnesia, night terrors, and a tendency to stop playing all video games. Around a month after its supposed release in 1981, Polybius is said to have disappeared without a trace. There is no evidence that such a game has ever existed…
The trailer Todd and Jon have up on Kickstarter right now is pretty sweet. (The cinematographer is our friend Elisha Christian, who also shot the Monocles commercial.) They’re fundraising to shoot more interviews and do all the post-production required to finish the film.
They’ve got 8 days left in the campaign, and to be honest, they’re pretty far from the finish line. But in an email, they told me:
Right now — even a $5 donation will help us a ton.
Truth is, there’s a good chance we won’t be able to pull this off (…which means you wouldn’t have to pay anything anyways). But on the flip side, we’ve been getting a ton of amazing press that just simply hasn’t translated into the donations we were hoping for. But we’re confident that with enough noise online (which, ironically enough, we’re actually getting), and some more backers displayed in our profile, we can at least take this to a financier and show them this is a project worth investing in.
Todd and Jon actually had a financier almost lined up, but when the deal didn’t go through, they turned to Kickstarter. If they can use Kickstarter press — funded or not — to help attract more industry interest, then the more backers they get, the better.
Source: Christopher Dombres via Flickr
The U.S. Copyright Office has launched a new Fair Use Index:
Fair use is a longstanding and vital aspect of American copyright law. The goal of the Index is to make the principles and application of fair use more accessible and understandable to the public by presenting a searchable database of court opinions, including by category and type of use (e.g., music, internet/digitization, parody).
The Fair Use Index is designed to be user-friendly. For each decision, we have provided a brief summary of the facts, the relevant question(s) presented, and the court’s determination as to whether the contested use was fair.
The Index itself is a series of summaries of key legal decisions regarding copyright and fair use, largely from the last sixty years.
It’s super interesting to me! Wondermark is, of course, created using images from the public domain. Which is not the same as fair use; public domain works have no copyright, whereas fair use is made of works that are copyrighted.
But copyright in all its gleaming facets is still a topic near and dear to my heart as an artist, author, and attentive internet citizen: I’ve written a fair amount about copyright and intellectual property.
The Fair Use Index includes some watershed copyright cases, such as 1978′s Walt Disney Productions v. Air Pirates, the precedent that defines the infringement threshold for copying copyrighted characters for “parody” purposes.
It might be said that under the Air Pirates test, the entire product line of the t-shirt website TeeFury is illegal, and I notice that very conveniently, most of their designs are only available in strictly limited, before-they-can-send-us-a-cease-and-desist editions.
Also included is the “Betamax” case, 1984′s Sony Corporation v. Universal City Studios, which ruled that recording a free broadcast of live television onto videotape for later home viewing — referred to as “time-shifting” — was, indeed, legal. “Home taping” (of both television and radio) was the big I.P. boogieman threat before “piracy”, and this court decision was what enabled the VCR, as a consumer device, to exist at all.
In browsing, I also came across some interesting cases I hadn’t heard about before, such as:
• 1985′s MGM v. Honda Motor Corp., in which MGM sued — and won — claiming that a spy-themed Honda commercial was too reminiscent of their copyrighted character, James Bond (and that it damaged the James Bond brand to show him in a Honda);
• 2004′s MasterCard v. Nader 2000, in which MasterCard sued — and lost — a copyright infringement suit against Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign commercials which copied/parodied its “priceless” slogan;
• 2006′s CleanFlicks v. Soderbergh, in which the company CleanFlicks, which edited objectionable content out of Hollywood movies and re-sold them to customers who preferred them that way, sought a declaratory judgment that doing so was legal — and lost. They thought they’d be OK because they’d buy a copy of the actual DVD, add in the edited version, and re-sell that precise physical DVD — not unlike buying a book, blacking out various passages, and then re-selling that physical book. Anyway, they lost;
• And of course, 2011′s CCA and B v. F+W Media, which ruled that the parody book Elf Off the Shelf (featuring a drunken, naughty elf), was, indeed, legal. Thank God for that.
The Fair Use Index: really great browsing, if you’re interested in copyright!
On to Part 2 of the books I read in 2014! (Here’s part 1. It is somewhat 100-year-old terrible-youth-adventure-novel heavy.)
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
Format: Hardcover from library
Above in this post I’ve embedded a TED talk by Jonathan Haidt (one of three that he’s done) that lays out in simplified form the “moral foundations” theory that he explores in detail in this book. I heard Haidt give a radio interview on the topic, and after trying unsuccessfully for quite a while to guess the spelling of his last name just by hearing it (Haight? Heit? Hayt?), I found the TED talk and watched it, then visited his website and read more about this book and his research into the social psychology of morality.
Philosophers and theologians have argued about how to define morality, but in this book Haidt attempts to do no such thing: instead, he describes how existing groups of people define morality, through surveys and research and statistical analysis, and from that data he attempts to describe the basic building blocks of morality.
Without hyperbole, The Righteous Mind is a book that changed the way I think. Haidt describes a series of studies, conducted by himself and others, surveying different cultures’ concepts of morality and distilling the common themes.
These commonalities, he argues, represent the things that we as humans choose to value, because they may be the things that helped our social species flourish where other evolutionary groups of humans did not. Chiefly, he claims, these core values are what help bond large groups of non-kin together, and inspire them to act cooperatively for mutual benefit. We survive as descendants of the groups that figured out these values, which is why we see these common threads in many different cultures.
The thing that I really love about this book is that it presents a compelling rationale for why intelligent people can disagree about moral matters. Political arguments can provoke a feeling of disdain — how can those idiots think that way? Can’t they see the facts? — and Haidt’s theory explains how people can have sincere political differences without being unintelligent or uninformed.
Which I like — because personally, I want to believe that people I disagree with politically are still fundamentally moral people who have the best interests of others at heart. Believing one’s opponents to be vile hatemongers solves nothing — it just makes it harder to work together with others, which is something we all have to do to survive.
Here’s Haidt’s theory in a nutshell:
Human beings from different cultures around the world tend to build their idea of morality on six “moral foundations”: care for the weak, fairness, loyalty, respect for authority, respect for sanctity, and freedom from oppression.
Haidt’s research found that these are the basic ingredients for a culture’s idea of moral behavior. But — and this is where it gets crazy — different groups make different moral recipes using those same core ingredients.
For example, according to Haidt’s surveys, people who identify as “liberal” in America tend to place a high value on caring for the weak and seeking fairness. People who identify as “conservative” care about those things too, but place an equal or higher value on loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity. This explains why conservatives as a whole can seem to care more about ideals like patriotism, or various forms of “purity”, that liberals don’t give as much credence to.
Both views on that axis — “patriotism is moral” and “patriotism isn’t necessarily important” — make sense to people operating within their own respective morality (or “moral matrix”). But to the conservative, the liberal hates America, and to the liberal, the conservative is a blind jingoist.
It’s not that one is wrong and one is right, or one is moral and the other is immoral — it’s that to each person, the other person’s beliefs fall outside their moral matrix. So the other person’s beliefs don’t make sense.
I’m just scratching the surface here. There’s also a whole other bit about how we tend to make snap decisions in concert with our existing moral matrix, but then unconsciously rationalize them — even when we think we’re being objective and logical. If you’ve been reading Wondermark for any length of time you know that these types of ideas are fascinating to me.
Anyway! I recommend that you read this book, or seek out Haidt’s TED talks or many published articles on this subject. I’m not kidding when I say it changed how I think — I started visualizing everyone acting within their individual moral matrix, and the odd decisions that other people made suddenly started to make sense. I also started to notice when people debating were lobbing dud arguments that they didn’t realize the other person would have no chance of taking seriously.
It’s nuts how much internalizing this “moral foundations” theory can change how you see the world — and I believe for the better; in a direction that increases the chances for cooperation and profitable discourse between even people who disagree. Read it!
Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer
Format: Paperback from library
I read Krakauer’s Into Thin Air a few years ago and found it super gripping and compelling. So I picked up this other book by him, about the history of the Mormon church in America, and certain individuals and communities that committed terrible atrocities — that, of course, the contemporary Mormon church doesn’t have much of an interest in discussing. I guess if I were a Mormon-hater I’d really lap up all the juicy details, but even ignoring the finger-pointing, it’s interesting enough as history.
Neuromancer by William Gibson
Format: Downloaded ebook
This is another of those books that I thought “I should probably read this some day.” I think I was actually prompted by someone’s offhand mention of a plot point — it was one of those situations where you hear an idea, and get mad because someone else already did it before you could! So I thought I should read the book to see how he did it thirty years ago or whatever, and as it turns out, his treatment of the minor idea was totally different from the story idea I’d had.
Anyway, this is a classic of sci-fi, and it’s certainly distinctive in its way. It’s hard to tell from this vantage point how groundbreaking it must have been at the time.
Saga, Volume 3 by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples
Format: Trade paperback borrowed from friend
This is the latest volume of the series I raved about last year! Continues to be good, continues to be recommended for fans of character-driven space opera.
Snowpiercer Vol. 1: The Escape by Jacques Lob & Jean-Marc Rochette and
Snowpiercer Vol. 2: The Explorers by Benjamin Legrand & Jean-Marc Rochette
Format: Hardcovers borrowed from friend
These two Snowpiercer books (from which the movie was adapted, of course) were recommended to me by a comics-loving friend before I even heard about the movie. When I eventually went to see the movie, I got to tell a different, movie-loving friend that the movie was an adaptation — he’d thought it was original.
After we both watched the movie, he came up to me and said “I kept wondering how the comics treated those certain scenes!” And I had to break the news to him that those scenes weren’t in the comic, because nothing survived the adaptation besides the most general premise. The comics are very different from the movie, slightly less bonkers perhaps, or at least bonkers in a less flashy, more mud-spackled way.
Again, it’s hard to tell how reading this must have felt when it was originally released, decades ago. Turns out the original author died after writing the book, but the second volume was released a decade later with a different writer. I guess this would be like packaging Watchmen and Before Watchmen in the same slipcase.
Before the Golden Age, Book 1 ed. Isaac Asimov
Format: Paperback from my mom’s house
We were cleaning out my mom’s house this summer and I came across these three paperbacks. Part autobiography, part anthology, the three books (originally issued as one large hardcover) were Asimov’s chance to reprint the early sci-fi stories that he remembered reading and being inspired by as a kid. He’d read pulp magazines at his father’s newsstand but never got to keep them — so these are the stories that stuck in his memory all the years later, and he revisits them here for the first time since then.
I really liked both his reminiscences and the stories themselves. I finished the first paperback and opened the second, but it was missing the first 14 pages. So, I got a copy from the library and photocopied out the missing pages, then taped them into my copy of the book…but by the time all that got done, I’d already started reading the next book on my list. I’ll probably come back to this series in 2015.
The Telling by Ursula K. Le Guin
Format: Hardcover from library
As I mentioned last year, I think I’d like to eventually become an Ursula K. Le Guin completist. This is another of her Hainish novels, the loosely-connected but functionally independent series that’s usually about ambassadors visiting new planets. In this one, a woman from Earth visits a planet that’s recently undergone a cultural revolution, and she tries to seek out traces of the older culture that’s being erased by the new regime.
One of the things I really liked was the way Le Guin made each culture’s language shape the way those people thought, and even the kinds of things they thought about. I asked on Twitter for recommendations of works that explored matters of language in similarly interesting ways, and a few titles lower on this list are the result of that request. (Linking it here for my own reference — and yours!)
The Barnum Museum by Steven Millhauser
Format: Hardcover from library
I checked out this book because I got on a jag about the voyages of Sinbad for some reason, and this collection of short stories contains one called “The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad”. This is also the book containing the story “Eisenheim the Illusionist”, which was adapted into the Edward Norton movie The Illusionist, which I created some TV spots for back when I worked for an ad agency. These two tenuous points of contact with my interests made it worth reserving the book at the library.
Those two stories stick with me well enough, but in general I decided I wasn’t a fan of Millhauser’s dreamy writing style. I also had to bail on one of the stories in order to return the book on time, so, like, I guess when the rubber hit the road I decided it wasn’t worth 15 cents in overdue fees. I’m very sorry for that, Mr. Millhauser. I’m sure you’ve done many wonderful things in the years since this book was published.
The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made by Greg Sestero
If you’ve seen the movie The Room, this book will probably be hilarious. If you haven’t, or have but don’t understand its appeal, it might not be.
As for me, I drove by Tommy Wiseau’s leering black & white face on a billboard every single day on Highland Avenue in Hollywood for years, wondering who in the world would pay for a billboard for an independent movie for that long. I even remember the day when the billboard was updated to add a neon yellow drop-shadow to the title.
One slow day in 2004, working the night shift at the ad agency, I convinced my co-worker to go to a late screening of The Room on Sunset Boulevard. Tommy Wiseau was there, sunglasses at night, and I asked him why the guys in the football-tossing scene are all wearing tuxedos, since there’s no wedding in the film.
Tommy’s slurred but confident response was that it was “so we would think about that very question.” This book, by Greg Sestero, is surely embellished and dramatized a bit, but it’s full of Tommy Wiseau moments that leave you with your jaw on the floor.
No Words by R.N. Adams
Doesn’t look like this is on the Kindle store anymore, but there’s a downloadable version at the link above. This is an erotic novella, which is not usually my cup of tea, but the author is a friend of a friend, and it was pitched as “consent-focused romance”, which intrigued me so I thought I’d check it out. It’s…super duper steamy, everyone.
Sex Criminals, Vol. 1: One Weird Trick by Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky
Format: Trade paperback from library
Sex Criminals is a comic about two people who discover that when they have sex, they can freeze time. So, they use this power to rob banks. You’re either into this immediately or you’re not, I suppose; I, personally, am!
Empire by Mark Waid, Barry Kitson, & James Pascoe
Format: Trade paperback from comic store
I picked this up a million years ago in a sale, and it sat unread until I read Sex Criminals in an afternoon and raided my shelf hungry for more comics.
It’s ostensibly about “what happens after the supervillain succeeds in taking over the world?”, which is a pretty fun pitch. This book isn’t very good, though. It’s melodramatic and confusing and I really, really don’t like the art.
Batman: The Doom That Came to Gotham by Mike Mignola
Format: Trade paperback from comic store
Another shelf raid. This is an Elseworlds story that sees Batman fight Lovecraftian horrors from the frozen wastes. I first read this years ago, before I really had any conception of Lovecraftian horrors or the tropes thereof, and didn’t really understand it. It reads somewhat better now that I know what Cthulu is, and Mignola’s art is great as always, but you really get the sense that this could have been longer than just three issues, because all the drama occurs very quickly and in abbreviated fashion, with the sense that it’s being crammed into the pages allotted.
Runaways, Volumes 1-4 by Brian K. Vaughan, Adrian Alphona, & Craig Yeung
Format: Trade paperbacks from comic store
This is a young-adult-type comic about teens who discover that their parents are all secretly supervillains. Just like all teens’ parents, am I right?? I thought it was OK; it’s printed on newsprint, maybe for cost or maybe so it feels more like one of those mangas that the kids like, and I had some issues with the art. All the characters make the same sort of pursed-lip expression all the time.
I think the bar is low enough for comics that they’re often called “great” when they’re simply “not actively bad”. This book is not actively bad.
Hawkeye, Vol. 1: My Life as a Weapon by Matt Fraction, David Aja, et al.
Format: Trade paperback from library
I’ve heard a lot about Matt Fraction’s run on Hawkeye (he’s also the writer of Sex Criminals, above) that paints Clint as an everyman, the non-super Avenger dealing with human-sized issues. For someone who doesn’t care about superheroes really at all, I enjoyed this a lot, and I also really like the art.
Brain Camp by Susan Kim, Laurence Klavan, & Faith Erin Hicks
Format: Paperback from library
I browsed the graphic novels stack at the library and grabbed this at random. It’s a YA-type story about kids who discover a crazy, horrible secret at their summer camp. It was a very breezy read, not quite for me I don’t think, but Faith Erin Hicks’ art is always a treat to look at.
A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher W. Alexander, et al.
Format: Hardcover received as gift
I found this book on Cool Tools and put it on my Christmas list…in 2011. It’s a thick book, a bit like a textbook perhaps, but I did eventually read it all, and in the end I do actually recommend it.
The book is the collected conclusions of researchers who studied how people live, work, move around cities, gather, hang out in various places, and form communities. Each section of a few pages describes some type of environment — starting at a macro level (towns) and moving down with increasing focus through neighborhoods, blocks, offices, houses, even down to individual rooms — and offers recommendations for ways to structure that environment for maximum utility and harmony.
It’s like feng shui, I suppose, except in the reedy voice of a Berkeley professor from the seventies who cites studies from Hungary in his reasoning. The first part of the book, recommendations for the structure of towns and neighborhoods, are a bit hard to implement on a personal level, but it’s an interesting introduction to the sorts of ideas at play: no concession to how things are currently, just straight instructions for how to design a town from scratch.
I don’t have the book in front of me to cite examples of that, but many of the smaller-scale examples stick in my memory because they just seem right, articulating things I’ve felt but never really put into words, or maybe never even quite felt until I saw it on the page. Some that I recall are:
- Design rooms so they have windows on, and let in light on, two sides
- Gardens and yards in the northern hemisphere should face the south
- Front yards and patios should be elevated above the sidewalk to create a separation between private and public space
- Large interior windows should contain seating nooks
- Workers at desks should have a wall at their back and one side, and be able to look out into a larger area, but be separated from it by a partition (e.g. a half-height wall, or doorway)
- An area where people are to meet should have a large number of mismatched chairs…
The recommendations are very specific, and come with various levels of urging. I was also struck by many recommendations toward the development of communal space (probably belying the book’s Berkeley origin), because they seemed like decent ideas that nonetheless are really uncommon in urban areas. For example, housing elderly relatives in a guest house on the property, so they have independence but are still close at hand; having groups of homes face a common, non-roadway area where kids can pass through or play within sight of multiple homes; or having craftspeople and workers carry on their work in areas with open doors, so neighborhood kids can observe and begin to learn about the trades.
This book doesn’t need to be read cover to cover, but if you’re designing a living or working space, it’s worth finding a copy at a library and perusing the relevant recommendations — if for no other reason than to make you consider various questions you might not have. I know I look at windows and garden paths differently now.
That’s the end of part 2! Next week — the thrilling finale to this list of books!
Chris Hardwick is a stand-up comedian, podcaster, television host, actor and geek icon. His Nerdist Podcast, in which he and his pals interview celebrities and creative people, is one of my favourites.
This quote is taken from Hardwick’s memoir/self-help book The Nerdist Way: How to Reach The Next Level (in Real Life). In the book, Hardwick shares how he levelled-up and seized control of his own mind. He landed a gig as an MTV host at 22 but admits he was not prepared for the world of show business. What followed were “several years of laziness, drinking and f**kups.” By the time he was 30, Hardwick was overweight, drank too much, had bad credit and little work prospects. He decided to do something about it, got sober, got in shape and devoted himself to improving his life (you can compare ‘Chubby Chris’ to ’New and Improved Chris’ in this blog post he wrote). He went on to start the incredibly successful Nerdist empire, and today is a stand-up comedian, TV host and pretty much the King of all pop-culture.
So what actually is a Nerdist? Taken from The Nerdist Way:
There are Nerds, and then there are Nerdists. A Nerdist is, more specifically, an artful Nerd. He or she doesn’t just consume, he or she creates and innovates. Freelancers, game designers, graphic designers, DMs (Dungeon Masters), musicians, artists, crafties, and writers are all examples of Nerdists. Yes, we obsess over things, but we are also driven to produce stuff. It may not be surprising, then, that I refer to Nerdists as “creative obsessives.” The technology explosion in the Information Age has allowed us to flourish, whereas even as recently as fifteen years ago we would have had to get jobs that devoured our souls and pooped them out into little cubes, with little recourse for pursuing our Nerdly passions in any professional capacity. OUR TIME IS NOW.
Can I get an ‘Amen’?
Thanks to Patty Marvel for submitting this quote.
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My buddy Karla has a Kickstarter! It is about a little dog who helps the President of France solve MURDERS. There is art by me and a bunch of really great cartoonists! You should totally back it!
After the third time we were robbed we only had enough money for either storm doors or security cameras. Obby said he’d rather not have high definition video of his stuff being stolen, and opted for the equipment that would keep them from gaining entry in the first place.
Also, the storm doors kept down the drafts.
Cameras are the last thing you should buy when setting up a security system. They go somewhere after flood lights, fencing, door/window reinforcements, an alarm system, and whatever effective weapon you’re comfortable using against someone who blew past all that and is now staring at you in your kitchen.
You could also not live in the ghetto.
P.S. We haven’t been burgled/robbed since we moved to Portland. This is just a strip about general home security, because we’re totally well versed in it now.
Heresy is the beautiful entropy that makes religion compatible with modern society.
Unhappy Halloween, everyone! Check out even more of my Halloween comics here – some of them might even be slightly more uplifting.
Thomas G. Knoles, the Marcus A. McCorison Librarian at the American Antiquarian Society, has an intimate knowledge of the more than 100,000 handwritten letters, as well as 1,500 manuscript collections, spanning from 1630 to present day, that are housed in the society’s archives.
“Life was so different in the 19th century. People didn’t have television, computers or radios, any of the distractions that they have now,” Knoles said. “Between the fact that it was the only way of communicating with people who were local and the fact there was actually disposable time to write the letters, letter writing was something that was a common practice.”
…While he feels the transition to the computer is a natural one, Knoles said there will be a whole texture of what everyday life was like that is going to be much harder to recapture because people don’t keep letters like they do emails and texts.
“We can grieve for anything that changes, but my own feeling is that you have to accept the fact that things are going to change,” Knoles said. “People grieved when the typewriter came. People grieved in the mid-19th century when the envelope was introduced and before that they used sealing wax.”
– “Mass. Scholars Mourn Lost Art Of Letter Writing”, CBS Boston, March 22, 2014
To be clear, I am a fan of letter writing!
• As the quote above says, letter writing, its other charms aside, preserves history. On this site I’ve discussed correspondence by the Wright Brothers and shown off letters my mother received from Isaac Asimov. My mother, a prolific correspondent, has saved bushels of letters we’ve come across decades later, but in the future, we are likely to find few from the era since she began sending emails.
• A couple years ago, I sent letters — 521 of them — to every head of state in the world, every governor in the U.S., 200 of the world’s top CEOs, and the pope. I got 52 letters back!
• People send me letters! I love it when they do. Here’s one I got recently (click for bigger):
…Of late, however, we faced a quandary regarding your fine publication. Sharp-eyed old Grisby noticed there is a price cited on your mast-head. Imagine our shame at discovering we have been leeches, sucking the bounty of your blood for close to eleven years, without so much as lying about paying…
Enclosed please find the requisite payment of six pence… Notices of subscription renewals should not be sent and will go unanswered. We consider the matter closed.
• Hundreds of people sent us letters about Machine of Death — we asked them to, in exchange for us sending them a death prediction card in the mail. We said “send us anything,” and the results were amazing.
So, I’m firmly on the side of writing letters. But it’s true that it’s somewhat of an affectation these days. I correspond with people all the time, but the last letter I wrote was an angry one to the IRS.
One of my favorite historical books, though, is all about writing letters…
The Formality of Letters
Before the creation of special envelopes, letters were usually folded over and sealed with wax. But this was somewhat less than secure, as this 1840 article about the invention of an early mass-produced envelope explains:
Among other consequences that have grown out of the new postage system, is the universal employment of envelopes, which have now become almost essential to all polite or official correspondence.
A writer in a late number of the Quarterly Review, alluding to the employment of envelopes, observes they “are very popular, particularly with the higher and middle classes, because it is the fashion, and a mark of bon ton [high society] to enclose one’s letter in an envelope.
A scheme, therefore, that enables all to indulge in this little aristocratic convenience, is pretty generally acceptable…
Early envelopes had poorly-gummed flaps that could easily be opened, or wax seals and wheat-paste stickers (“wafers”) that could be pried off and re-adhered, allowing for the potential of tampering but also the loss of privacy: “the injury which has been occasioned by family secrets transpiring in this manner is of the most distressing kind; much worse, in fact, than the consequences of fraud and dishonesty”.
The “Hermetic Envelope” pictured above proposed to solve this by doing away with wax, and instead using the postage stamp to seal the envelope. This also served a dual purpose: when the recipient opened the envelope by tearing the stamp, that destruction served to cancel (or “frank”) the stamp, meaning the letter did not need be franked at the post office and could be delivered more quickly.
1833’s The Gentleman and Lady’s Book of Politeness and Propriety of Deportment (the shortest title of any book published that year) (I imagine) describes a few of the most important elements of courteous letter-writing:
…To write on very coarse paper, is allowable only to the most indigent; to use gilt edged and perfumed paper for letters of business, would be ridiculous. The selection of paper ought always to be in keeping with the person, the age, the sex, and the circumstances of the correspondents.
Ornamented paper, of which we have just spoken; paper bordered with colored vignettes and embossed with ornaments in relief upon the edges; and paper slightly colored with delicate shades, are designed for young ladies and those whose condition, taste, and dignity, presuppose habits of luxury and elegance…
It is extremely impolite to write a letter upon a single leaf of paper…It should be always double, even though we write only two or three lines. It is still more vulgar to use for an envelope, paper on which there are one or two words foreign to the letter itself, whether they be written or printed…
A folded letter, especially if written upon vellum paper, should be pressed at the folds by means of a paper-folder…
Every letter to a superior ought to be folded in an envelope. It shows a want of respect to seal with a wafer; we must use sealing-wax. Men usually select red; but young ladies use gilt, rose, and other colors. Both use black wax when they are in mourning.
Except in this last case, the color is immaterial, but not the size, for very large ones are in bad taste. The smaller and more glossy, the better ton [fashion] they are…We should not seal a letter of respect with an antique device. It is more polite to use our coat of arms or a cipher.
The chapter goes on at great length, describing the proper forms of address when writing to a king. As you do.
But all of those little rules and courtesies are but nonsense on a dreamscape compared to the following instructional book, a favorite from my own collection: The New Century Standard Letter-Writer (1900).
How To Write Good
The Gentleman and Lady’s Book of Politeness, the previous book I quoted from, leads off its correspondence section with the disclaimer “Our readers have too much judgment to think that we wish to give them lessons in style, or teach them how they should write letters of friendship, of congratulation, of condolence, of apology, of recommendations, of invitation, of complaint, or of censure. This enumeration alone, shows the impossibility of it.”
But that is exactly what The New Century Standard Letter-Writer does. It’s a collection of example letters, for people to use as templates or structural models when writing any of the letters one might need to over the course of…one’s whole life, I guess?
For the Letter-Writer is phenomenally comprehensive. Starting with the simplest business letters:
To more delicate matters of courtesy that may arise in the office:
To the uncommon, but all the more needing of example for that reason, notice required when a widow must announce the death of her husband to his late employers:
And on through progressively more intimate matters — such as personal but formal business:
This last letter shows precisely why I like this book: it very readily lends itself to imagining the personal dramas occurring behind the pages. In fact, it could work cover-to-cover as a novel, a piece of fiction telling the story of a people strictly through the letters they write.
Like the best novels, of course, it becomes progressively more dramatic as the pages turn, and the stakes grow ever higher. In the prior selection, we glimpsed trouble at the tailor shop; now, here comes a very forward request from a lady asking if she can live on a stranger’s farm:
It’s wonderful. It’s the beginning of a BBC film, or something.
In this one, a son explains to his father how much he has come to dislike his job (which presumably, his father helped place him in):
I must remind you that this is not a book of story prompts, it is an etiquette book about letter writing. It’s very easy to forget.
The drama increases as this pleasant Christmas letter veers into a complaint:
I honestly don’t know if these examples are reprints of actual letters, though I imagine not, if they’re supposed to function somewhat as templates (and many of the later ones include several possible responses, depending on the desired affect).
But it’s in the regarding of these as templates that it’s so strange to see the letter “To a Mother from Her Daughter after First Day in College” (Example 119) go on for three solid pages of the writer meeting roommates, and experiencing miscommunications about lodging, and feeling homesick — followed by an “Answer to the Above” from the mother, reassuring the daughter, talking about the baby at home, and noting that “Gertrude has been to the house to inquire what we have heard from you.”
These personal details, presumably invented by the book’s author, are what make these letters so peculiar. And it gets stranger as the templates dive into the fraught world of:
The very first example — “From a Gentleman to a Young Lady Friend of His about a Misunderstanding” — is followed by three possible answers: one “Kindly”, one “Conciliatory”, and one “Chilly”: “I think that my manner toward my friends and acquaintances usually represents me correctly. Truth to one’s self will not always allow absolute uniformity in one’s outward action. I think a further exchange of explanations will not be profitable.”
Re-read that. “I think a further exchange of explanations will not be profitable.” Use it in your daily life. It’s solid.
Oh, the raw emotions on display in these letters, and of course their responses that are crushed, or furious, or elated, as the reader desires! It would take the length of the book to reprint everything that I find wonderful about it all.
But here are a few of the many template letters the book provides for the romantically inclined in various situations, along with a few sample sentences:
From A Gentleman Asking Permission of a Lady to Address Her by Her Christian Name — “I feel almost ready to apologize for the length of my last letter. It seemed as if I couldn’t make you understand my friend Gunther’s difficulties without the dull details of the particular circumstances. I thank you for the consideration you gave the matter. He is trying your plan.”
Marriage Proposal to a Lady to whom the Writer has never been Introduced — “I know only too well that I am taking a very unusual step in venturing to address you, but let me trust that under the circumstances you will be inclined to excuse it, as unfortunately there appears to be no other course open to me of making myself known…Kindly accept my enclosed photograph. Dare I hope that it may silently speak for me?”
Marriage Proposal from a Gentleman of Small Means — “Do you think you could be happy as the wife of a poor man?…Although I am not in a position to maintain a wife at the present time, my prospects are encouraging, as my uncle has promised to take me into partnership early next year, which will materially improve my position.”
Answer to the Above (Unfavorable) — “My father will not for a moment hear of our engagement, and whatever my own feelings may be, you would not, I am sure, wish me to disobey him…Dear Mr. Redfield, good-bye, forgive me for the disappointment I am compelled to inflict, [and] think of me kindly.”
Marriage Proposal to a Young Lady, from a Widower with Grown-up Daughters — “In spite of my being well over forty, my sympathies and affections are as keen as if I were twenty years younger…You would be a sister and companion to my girls, and to myself the most beloved of wives.”
From a Father to a Gentleman who has paid Marked Attentions to His Daughter Requesting to Know His Intentions — “I cannot allow her happiness to be trifled with; therefore hope that you will see the propriety of at once putting an end to a position embarrassing to her as it is painful to me.”
Answer to the Above — “Under these circumstances, I conclude you would wish me to discontinue my visits at your house and I shall do so with much regret.”
From a Gentleman to his Fiancée — “It is nine o’clock, and I am just home from the office. You see I am working hard…I was thinking only of you all the time — you in your little pink gingham under the apple tree. Do you remember? It was May, and the sun was setting, and I kissed you for the first time without being scolded for it. You are not sorry that you didn’t scold me? Think hard, dear, and tell me when you write.”
Answer to the Above — “The snow is twenty inches deep, and we are almost buried. Jim brought me your letter this morning. He was quite exhausted ploughing his way up to the house. ‘Thought it would pay me, Polly,’ he said, ‘to see the love-light in your eyes.’ Dear, lonely old Jim, so faithful and unselfish! Mother brought him in and gave him a cup of coffee.”
Remember: THIS IS A BOOK OF TEMPLATES
At this point in our story, love has seemingly conquered. But the letters now begin to take a turn…
From a Gentleman to his Fiancée, Complaining of Her Coldness — “At the party last night you appeared to prefer every man in the room to myself as partner. If you acted in this way with the idea of arousing my jealousy, let me tell you it is very dangerous game to play at.”
From a Lady to her Fiancé, Complaining of His Indifference — “I feel you are very much changed, your manner to me at times almost amounting to indifference. Your letters are short and cold, and but few words of affection can be extracted from them.”
From a Lady to her Fiancé of Whom She is Jealous — “My Dear Charles: — May I hope that you will not think me foolishly exacting if I say that you have pained and hurt me by the attentions you so constantly offer to Mrs. Dunstable?”
Answer to the Above (Protesting) — “I must tell you, once and for all, that I detest jealousy in a woman, and should soon cease to care for one who tormented me by repetition of such accusations…I can see nothing but wretchedness ahead if you persist in giving way to this feeling.”
From the Mother of a Young Lady to Her Daughter’s Fiancé, Concerning a Quarrel Between the Lovers — “I well know how delicate a matter it is for a third person to interfere with lovers’ quarrels, but as the happiness of my daughter is at stake, it is my duty as her mother to try and bring about a reconciliation between you.”
From a Lady to Her Fiancé Breaking off Their Engagement on Account of His Coldness — “You will not feel surprised at the contents of this letter…I could not be happy with one whom I did not esteem as well as love, and by your conduct of late you have forfeited my good opinion, and have destroyed my faith in you. Your letters are herewith returned and I beg that you will send mine back; kindly acknowledge also receipt of the presents you have made me at different times.”
There are so many more. Invitations to a garden party; an older man attempting to offer a girl a present; how to postpone a friend’s visit on account of illness in the family; how to address the President or members of Congress.
One each of everything you will likely need to write, your whole life long.
The Lost Art of Letter-Writing
And so! In this entire book full of letters, emotions rent from souls and plastered onto paper, is this the art we have forgotten, the apogee of the form? Is this the point to which we must look, when we consider all that we have lost?
It would seem as though letter-writing, which half a century ago was a luxury and a delight, is about to become a lost art, a mere memory of days of happy leisure.
Even in 1900, it was already gone.
But did it die, or was it killed? What, in 1900, was actively destroying the once-great art of letter-writing?
That infernal device: the TYPEWRITER.
But the world moves on! The days of leisure are passed; and a busier age demands quicker methods. In answer to this demand the writing-machines have appeared…Yet, as long as the world lasts letter writing will hold an important place; indeed, it will always be a part of our best life. Business even will sometimes assume such importance, and involve so many intricate details, that it will seem that nothing short of a long and carefully written letter, in which the individuality of the writer appears in the character of his hand-writing, will fully serve the purpose of the occasion.
…Type-written letters are more or less all alike, they have no individuality, are marked by no personal characteristics; while, on the other hand, no two letters from the pens of different writers are ever alike…In more intimate intercourse, the hand-written letter still reigns supreme. The mother does not want a machine-written letter from her son. Type-written letters might be from some other son to some other mother. She wants to see her son’s handwriting, for to her loving eyes, his angular, awkward, and even misspelt, letters are a thousand times more beautiful and symmetrical than any letter any typewriter ever produced.
What ardent lover would care to receive a type-written letter? Do not lovers fondly linger, and dote, and dream over the very characters wrought by the hand they love so well? A letter from a lover’s hand is a revelation that no machine-written letter can ever be. Besides all this, are there not dottings of i’s and crossings of t’s, and countless twists, and turns, and underlinings, all full to the brim of mystic meanings that no typewriter on earth could convey?
There are other things, moreover, that it would show very poor taste to commit to the typewriter. Such, for example, as letters of condolence or congratulation. No thoughtful, cultured person would send a letter of condolence to a mother who had lost a child, or a letter of congratulation on a wedding anniversary, written on a machine! It would be as far from good taste as though sent from a printing office in printed form.
Who would have cared to have received type-written letters from the brave boys who were fighting the battles of freedom thirty years ago? What treasures those letters were! Written from the battle-fields, on scraps of paper, with the drum head for a desk. Written in haste while “the foe was suddenly firing”; crumpled, blotted, and sometimes stained with blood. How the mothers and sweethearts kissed the precious missives, and even sturdy fathers were not ashamed of tears! The straggling, imperfect penmanship was beautiful, seen by the eyes of love.
While love and tenderness endure, love letters and letters sent home must be written by the hand, for there is often as much impressiveness in the form of a letter as in the accents of the voice. In short, good and careful letter-writing will always form an important element in a liberal education. A gentleman is nowhere so much a gentleman as in his letters.
Man. I’m never using a typewriter again.