Years ago he wrote a book on diariesA Book of One’s Ownand now Mallon has produced what is meant to be a companion piece, Yours Ever: People and Their Letters (Pantheon).
Some things are quite different about this new book. Diarists are a less numerous and odder lot than letter writers: the assassin and the masochist and the crackpot Elizabethan astrologer, all denizens of the A Book of One’s Own, are more drawn to the unanswerable monologue than to exchange there are plenty of flamboyant characters in the pages that follow but they are writing in a form, letters that have been used by almost every literate person. If the material feels less rarefied, it may also feel more welcoming and accessible. One common feature is indisputable: the pleasure to be had in violating someone’s privacy. Whether we’re reading his diaries or letters, we’re reading material that wasn’t intended for usat least originally.Also, Mallon points out that the book is organized roughly around the circumstances motivating each chapter’s worth of letters, which he compares to herding cats.
Life being the chaotic thing it is and letters being the associative catchall they are, there is nothing very categorical about the categories [Absence, Friendship, Advice, Complaint, Love, Spirit, Confession, War, Prison].Mallon offers that Yours Ever is not an exercise in nostalgia but a series of glimpses into a still-living literature. One can only hope that’s true, and that Mallon’s tome is a timely homage to a vivid literary activity.