Friday, March 30, 2012

Writing: Letter Colletions

Photo by Daniel Rembert, "Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956"

Over the winter months, I decided to spread my literary wings.

It wasn't so much in regards to my own work, but in the way I approached the work of authors & artists I've been following.  Novels & biographies alone weren't enough anymore - like an addict that needs to up the dosage of whatever vice they have - I needed something more in order to stay interested.

It started with a coffee table book I found, called "GONZO", a pictorial biography of Hunter S. Thompson's life & travels.  Being a Hunter-O-Phile, I thought it was fascinating to see the pictures he took of the places mentioned in his various works.  In between those pages though, there were letter excerpts about the very same thing.  They were the raw, unprocessed ore of books & articles that I already loved.  I read every single one and became obsessed.*

*Notice post #3 on this very same site.

The majority of those letters were published in a book called "The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman 1955-1967", and I tossed it onto my monthly Amazon book order. Thanks to their recommendations feature, I was made aware of many more letter collections. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Cassady, Joyce, Bukowski, Burroughs, Vonnegut... even George Carlin had collections published, and those are just ones that I currently own.  Almost any famous writer is in this special club.

What I love about these publications is that the reader gets more insight into the author than any biography could ever get.  Dare I say even better than autobiographies?  I think so.  An autobiography is usually written much after the fact, so the content isn't nearly as accurate as they are with letters.  In letters, you get up-to-the-minute emotions & thoughts rather than a reflection of them from decades later.

Being a wordsmith myself, there's another perk with "The Letters of..." collections, the opportunity to watch their writing style evolve into what everyone else is familiar with.  Especially with collections that begin early in their life, you get to see the full transition - including any sort of influences they've had along the way.  When they start to read a series of works by someone else, their style will change a little, being influenced by it. 

It's a process that almost every writer goes through, and when you get to read through it chronologically, you get a magnified view of normally subtle tweaks and changes that people normally never get to see in the first place.

A warning though: To really enjoy books like these, you have to be a big fan of the author.  If you aren't, you will get bored easily.  To the average reader, it's just a thick-ass book filled with letters to unknown people, talking about trivial shit. 

Me, on the other hand, I've always been fascinated by Jack Kerouac's relationship with Allen Ginsberg & Neal Cassady, and I have three separate books of letters dealing with that subject alone. 

Literary Fan Level: Nerd