How to write letters, 100 diagrams that changed the world, the best music books of 2012, and more.

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100 Diagrams That Changed the World

A visual history of human sensemaking, from cave paintings to the world wide web.

Since the dawn of recorded history, we've been using visual depictions to map the Earth, order the heavens, make sense of time, dissect the human body, organize the natural world, perform music, and even concretize abstract concepts like consciousness and love. 100 Diagrams That Changed the World (UK; public library) by investigative journalist and documentarian Scott Christianson chronicles the history of our evolving understanding of the world through humanity's most groundbreaking sketches, illustrations, and drawings, ranging from cave paintings to The Rosetta Stone to Moses Harris's color wheel to Tim Berners-Lee's flowchart for a "mesh" information management system, the original blueprint for the world wide web.

But most noteworthy of all is the way in which these diagrams bespeak an essential part of culture – the awareness that everything builds on what came before, that creativity is combinatorial, and that the most radical innovations harness the cross-pollination of disciplines. Christianson writes in the introduction:

It appears that no great diagram is solely authored by its creator. Most of those described here were the culmination of centuries of accumulated knowledge. Most arose from collaboration (and oftentimes in competition) with others. Each was a product and a reflection of its unique cultural, historical and political environment. Each represented specific preoccupations, interests, and stake holders.


The great diagrams depicted in the book form the basis for many fields – art, astronomy, cartography, chemistry, mathematics, engineering, history, communications, particle physics, and space travel among others. More often than not, however, their creators – mostly known, but many lost to time – were polymaths who are creating new technologies or breakthroughs by drawing from a potent combination of disciplines. By applying trigonometric methods to the heavens, or by harnessing the movement of the sun and the planets to keep time, they were forging powerful new tools; their diagrams were imbued with synergy.

The Ptolemaic System (Claudus Ptolemy, c. AD 140-150)

This 1568 illuminated illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric system, 'Figura dos Corpos Celestes' (Four Heavenly Bodies), is by the Portuguese cosmographer and cartographer Bartolomeu Velbo.

Ptolemy's World Map (Claudius Ptolemy, c. AD 150)

In this 15th-century example of the Ptolemaic world map, the Indian Ocean is enclosed and there is no sea route around the Cape. The 'inhabited' (Old) World is massively inflated.

Lunar Eclipse (Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, 1019)

An illustration showing the different phases of the moon from al-Biruni's manuscript copy of his Kitab al-Tafhim (Book of Instruction on the Principles of the Art of Astrology)

Christianson offers a definition:


From the latin diagramma (figure) from Greek, a figure worked out b lines, plan, from diagraphein, from graphein to write. First known use of the word: 1619.

  1. A plan, a sketch, drawing, outline, not necessarily representational, designed to demonstrate or explain something or clarify the relationship existing between the parts of the whole.
  2. In mathematics, a graphic representation of an algebraic or geometric relationship. A chart or graph.
  3. A drawing or plan that outlines and explains the parts, operation, etc. of something: a diagram of an engine.

Vitruvian Man (Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1487

This sketch, and the notes that go with it, show how da Vinci understood the proportions of the human body. The head measured from the forehead to the chin was exactly one tenth of the total height, and the outstretched arms were always as wide as the body was tall.

Human Body (Andreas Vesalius, 1543)

Vesalius's revolutionary anatomical treatise, De Humani Corporis Fabrica, shows the dissected body in unusually animated poses. These detailed diagrams are perhaps the most famous illustrations in all of medical history.

Heliocentric Universe (Nicolaus Copernicus, 1543)

Copernicus's revolutionary view of the universe was crystallized in this simple yet disconcerting line drawing. His heliocentric model – which placed the Sun and not the Earth and the center of the universe – contradicted 14th-century beliefs.

Flush Toilet (John Harington, 1596)

The text accompanying Harington's diagram identified A as the 'Cesterne,' D as the 'seate boord,' H as the 'stoole pot,' and L as the 'sluce.' If used correctly, 'your worst privie may be as sweet as your best chamber.'

Moon Drawings (Galileo Galilei, 1610)

Aided by his telescope, Galileo's drawings of the moon were a revelation. Until these illustrations were published, the moon was thought to be perfectly smooth and round. Galileo's sketches revealed it to be mountainous and pitted with craters.

Color Wheel (Moses Harris, 1766)

Moses Harris's chart was the first full-color circle. The 18 colors of his wheel were derived from what he then called the three 'primitive' colors: red, yellow and blue. At the center of the wheel, Harris showed that black is formed by the superimposition of these colors.

A New Chart of History (Joseph Priestley, 1769)

The regularized distribution of dates on Priestley's chart and its horizontal composition help to emphasize the continuous flow of time. This innovative, colorful timeline allowed students to survey the fates of 78 kingdoms in one chart.

Line Graph (William Playfair, 1786)

William Playfair was the first person to display demographic and economic data in graph form. His clearly drawn, color-coded line graphs show time on the horizontal axis and economic data or quantities on the vertical axis.

Emoticons (Puck Magazine, 1881)

Emoticons made a discreet entrance, arriving in print for the first time in this March 30, 1881 issue of Puck. The small item in the middle of this page gives four examples of 'typographical art' – joy, melancholy, indifference, and astonishment.

Cubism and Abstract Art (Alfred Barr, 1936)

Barr's striking diagram highlighted the role that cubism had played in the development of modernism. Like the exhibition and book that accompanied it, Barr's diagram was a watershed in the history of 20th-century modernism.

Intel 4004 CPU (Ted Hoff, Stanley Mazor, Masatoshi Shima, Federico Faggin, Philip Tai, and Wayne Pickette, 1971)

Wayne Pickette suggested that Intel could use a 'computer on a board' for one of their projects with the Japanese company Busicom. Pickette drew this diagram with Philip Tai for the 4004 demonstration board.

Complement 100 Diagrams That Changed the World with 17 equations that changed the world and the fantastic Cartographies of Time.


The 7 Best Music Books of 2012

NOTE: For email-friendliness, this lengthy article has been truncated. Read the full version online, with more highlights and excerpts from each book.

The latest addition to this year's best-of reading lists – spanning art, design, philosophy and psychology, picturebooks, history, graphic novels and graphic nonfiction, and food – is a look at the most noteworthy music books of 2012, from the neuroscience of talent to the illustrated Beatles, by way of Zen Buddhism and how creativity works.


Great times and tall deeds for David Byrne this season: First his fantastic collaborative album with St. Vincent (which made a cameo on Literary Jukebox), and now the release of How Music Works (UK; public library) – a fascinating record of his lifetime of curiosity about and active immersion in music. But rather than an autobiographical work, a prescriptive guide to how to listen, or another neuropsychological account of music, what unfolds is a blend of social science, history, anthropology, and media theory, exploring how context shapes the experience and even the nature of music. Or, as Byrne puts it, "how music might be molded before it gets to us, what determines if it gets to us at all, and what factors external to the music itself can make it resonate for us. Is there a bar near the stage? Can you put it in your pocket? Do girls like it? Is it affordable?"

Among the book's most fascinating insights is a counterintuitive model for how creativity works, from a chapter titled "Creation in Reverse" – a kind of reformulation of McLuhan's famous aphorism "the medium is the message" into a somewhat less pedantic but no less purposeful "the medium shapes the message":

I had an extremely slow-dawning insight about creation. That insight is that context largely determines what is written, painted, sculpted, sung, or performed. That doesn't sound like much of an insight, but it's actually the opposite of conventional wisdom, which maintains that creation emerges out of some interior emotion, from an upwelling of passion or feeling, and that the creative urge will brook no accommodation, that it simply must find an outlet to be heard, read, or seen. The accepted narrative suggests that a classical composer gets a strange look in his or her eye and begins furiously scribbling a fully realized composition that couldn't exist in any other form. Or that the rock-and-roll singer is driven by desires and demons, and out bursts this amazing, perfectly shaped song that had to be three minutes and twelve seconds – nothing more, nothing less. This is the romantic notion of how creative work comes to b, but I think the path of creation is almost 180º from this model. I believe that we unconsciously and instinctively make work to fit preexisting formats.

Of course, passion can still be present. Just because the form that one's work will take is predetermined and opportunistic (meaning one makes something because the opportunity is there), it doesn't mean that creation must be cold, mechanical, and heartless. Dark and emotional materials usually find a way in, and the tailoring process – form being tailored to fit a given context – is largely unconscious, instinctive. We usually don't even notice it. Opportunity and availability are often the mother of invention. The emotional story – 'something to get off my chest' – still gets told, but its form is guided by prior contextual restrictions. I'm proposing that this is not entirely the bad thing one might expect it to be. Thank goodness, for example, that we don't have to reinvent the wheel every time we make something.

Byrne gives a number of examples from the history of music that illustrate this contextually-driven creation and what it reveals about the nature of creativity:

It's usually assumed that much Western medieval music was harmonically 'simple' (having few key changes) because composers hadn't yet evolved the use of complex harmonies. In this context there would be no need or desire to include complex harmonies, as they would have sounded horrible in such spaces. Creatively they did exactly the right thing. Presuming that there is such a thing as 'progress' when it comes to music, and that music is 'better' now than it used to be, is typical of the high self-regard of those who live in the present. It is a myth. Creativity doesn't 'improve.'

He turns to nature for confirmation of this model:

The adaptive aspect of creativity isn't limited to musicians and composers (or artists in any other media). It extends into the natural world as well. David Attenborough and others have claimed that birdcalls have evolved to fit the environment. In dense jungle foliage, a constant, repetitive, and brief signal with a narrow frequency works best – the repetition is like an error-correcting device. If the intended recipient didn't get the first transmission, an identical one will follow.

Birds that live on the forest floor evolved lower-pitched calls, so they don't bounce or become distorted by the ground as higher-pitched sounds might. Water birds have calls that, unsurprisingly, cut through the ambient sounds of water, and birds that live in the plains and grasslands, like the Savannah Sparrow, have buzzing calls that can traverse long distances.


So musical evolution and adaptation is an interspecies phenomenon. And presumably, as some claim, birds enjoy singing, even though they, like us, change their tunes over time. The joy of making music will find a way, regardless of the context and the form that emerges to best fit it.

Byrne brings this evolutionary lens back full circle to the emotional content of creation:

Finding examples to prove that music composition depends on its context comes naturally to me. But I have a feeling that this somewhat reversed view of creation – that it is more pragmatic and adaptive than some might think – happens a lot, and in very different areas. It's 'reversed' because the venues – or the fields and woodlands, in the case of the birds – were not built to accommodate whatever egotistical or artistic urge the composers have. We and the birds adapt, and it's fine.

What's interesting to me is not that these practical adaptations happen (in retrospect that seems predictable and obvious), but what it means for our perception of creativity.

It seems that creativity, whether birdsong, painting, or songwriting, is as adaptive as anything else. Genius – the emergence of a truly remarkable and memorable work – seems to appear when a thing is perfectly suited to its context. When something works, it strikes us as not just being a clever adaptation, but as emotionally resonant as well. When the right thing is in the right place, we are moved.


We do express our emotions, our reactions to events, breakups and infatuations, but the way we do that – the art of it – is in putting them into prescribed forms or squeezing them into new forms that perfectly fit some emerging context. That's part of the creative process, and we do it instinctively; we internalize it, like birds do. And it's a joy to sing, like the birds do.

The rest of How Music Works goes on to explore such absorbing facets of music as the intricate inner workings of the music business, the secret of successful collaborations, Byrne's own life in performance, and how the history of recording technology shaped music.

And what makes for a particularly enjoyable read is Byrne's decidedly non-dogmatic, non-didactic tone – instead, he wraps his keen cultural insights in a sheath of self-aware subjectivity and unapologetic personal conviction, with just the right amount of conversational candor. (In a section discussing the social shifts in the early 1900s when classical audiences were suddenly forbidden from shouting, eating, and chatting during a performance, he opines with equal parts snark and cultural sensitivity: "I do wonder how much of the audience's fun was sacrificed in the effort to redefine the social parameters of the concert hall – it sounds almost masochistic of the upper crust, curtailing their own liveliness, but I guess they had their priorities.")

Originally featured in September.


Are musicians born or made? What is the line between skill and talent in any domain, and can we acquire either later in life? That's exactly what neuroscientist Gary Marcus explores in Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning (UK; public library) – a fascinating journey into the limits of human reinvention.

In an effort to reconcile his lifelong passion for music with his self-admitted chronic musical inaptitude, Marcus set out to debunk one of science's longest-running theories about learning – that there are "critical periods" in which complex skills can be learned, and that they slam shut after adolescence.

If critical periods aren't quite so firm as people once believed, a world of possibility emerges for the many adults who harbor secret dreams – whether to learn a language, to become a pastry chef, or to pilot a small plane. And quests like these, no matter how quixotic they may seem, and whether they succeed in the end or not, could bring unanticipated benefits, not just for their ultimate goals but of the journey itself. Exercising our brains helps maintain them, by preserving plasticity (the capacity of the nervous system to learn new thing), warding off degeneration, and literally keeping the blood flowing. Beyond the potential benefits for our brains, there are benefits for our emotional well-being, too. There may be no better way to achieve lasting happiness – as opposed to mere fleeting pleasure – than pursuing a goal that helps us broaden our horizons.

To his astonishment, however, Marcus found a dearth of scientific literature and research on music learning in people of his age. The problem, it turned out, wasn't lack of scientific interest but, rather, a lack of subjects – studying the outcomes of adults who put in 10,000 hours of practice proved difficult since most people of that age have life responsibilities that prevent them from putting in that time in the first place. So, Marcus decided to turn himself into the guinea pig.

For a glimmer of hope, he looked to a number of well-known musicians who arrived at their particular musical talent late in life – Patti Smith didn't consider becoming a professional singer until she was in her mid-twenties, iconic jazz guitarist Pat Martino relearned to play after a brain aneurysm at the age of 35, and New Orleans keyboard legend Dr. John switched from guitar to piano when he was 21 after an injury, then won the first of his five Grammys at the age of 48. Having no such aspirations of grandeur, Marcus, aged 38 and with a documented lack of rhythm, still found himself desperately longing to learn to play the guitar. As he puts it, "Perhaps few people had less talent for music than I did, but few people wanted more badly to be able to play." So he confronted the fundamental question:

Could persistence and a lifelong love of music overcome age and a lack of talent? And, for that matter, how did anyone of any age become musical?

Curiously, one of the most influential experiments on critical periods comes from barn owls who, like bats, rely heavily on sound to navigate; but, unlike bats, they see better than bats do, and one of the first things they do after hatching is calibrating their ears with their eyes, attuning what they hear to what they see. But because this navigational mapping of auditory information depends on the exact distance between their eyes and ears, which changes as the owl grows, it can't be hardwired at birth.

To study how the owls calibrate their visual and auditory worlds, Stanford biologist Eric Knudsen devised a clever experiment, in which he raised owls in a kind of virtual reality world where prisms shifted everything by 23 degrees, forcing the owl to adjust its internal map of the world. Knudsen found that young owls learned to compensate for the distortion easily, and older owls could not – at least not in one go. But as soon as the 23 degrees were broken down in chunks – a few weeks at 6 degrees, another few at 11, and so forth – the adult owls were able to make the adjustment.

Using this insight, Marcus turned to David Mead's Crash Course: Acoustic Guitar, which broke guitar playing into the kind of bite-sized morsels fit for the human equivalent of adult owls. It gave Marcus the basics, and thus the first step in rewiring his own brain.

This book is about how I began to distinguish my musical derriere from my musical elbow, but it's not just about me: it's also about the psychology and brain science of how anybody, of any age – toddler, teenager, or adult – can learn something as complicated as a musical instrument.

Along the way, Marcus explores the basic elements of music and how it evolved culturally and biologically. He dives deep into the popular "ten thousand hours" theory of mastery, developed by cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson, "the world's leading expert on expertise," and examines Ericsson's second, lesser-known prerequisite for expertise – the notion of "deliberate practice," which describes the constant sense of self-evaluation and a consistent focus on one's weaknesses rather than playing on one's strengths. In fact, the practice of targeting specific weaknesses is known as the "zone of proximal development" and offers a framework for everything from education to videogames:

[The 'zone of proximal development' is] the idea that learning works best when the student tackles something that is just beyond his or her current reach, neither too hard nor too easy. In classroom situations, for example, one team of researchers estimated that its' best to arrange things so that children succeed roughly 80 percent of the time; more than that, and kids tend to get bored; less, and they tend to get frustrated. The same is surely true of adults, too, which is why video game manufacturers have been known to invest millions in play testing to make sure that the level of challenge always lies in that sweet spot of neither too easy nor too hard.

But what makes Guitar Zero exceptional isn't simply that it simultaneously calls into question the myth of the music instinct and confronts the idea that talent is merely a myth – at its heart is a much bigger question about the boundaries of our capacity for transformation and, ultimately, the mechanics of fulfillment and purpose.

Originally featured in February.


"Good music can act as a guide to good living," John Cage famously said. But what, exactly, is good music, or good living, or, for that matter, goodness itself?

In Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (UK; public library), also one of the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012, longtime art critic and practicing Buddhist Kay Larson constructs a remarkable intellectual, creative, and spiritual biography of Cage – one of the most influential composers in modern history, whose impact reaches beyond the realm of music and into art, literature, cinema, and just about every other aesthetic and conceptual expression of curiosity about the world, yet also one of history's most misunderstood artists. Fifteen years in the making, it is without a doubt the richest, most stimulating,most absorbing book I've read in ages – superbly researched, exquisitely written, weaving together a great many threads of cultural history into a holistic understanding of both Cage as an artist and Zen as a lens on existence.

From his early life in California, defined by his investigations into the joy of sound, to his pivotal introduction to Zen Buddhism in Japanese Zen master D. T. Suzuki's Columbia University class, to his blossoming into a force of the mid-century avant-garde, Larson traces Cage's own journey as an artist and a soul, as well as his intermeshing with the journeys of other celebrated artists, including Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Yoko Ono, Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock, and, most importantly, Merce Cunningham.

The book itself has a beautiful compositional structure, conceived as a conversation with Cage and modeled after Cage's imagined conversations with Erik Satie, one of his mentors, long after Satie's death. Interspersed in Larson's immersive narrative are italicized excerpts of Cage's own writing, in his own voice.

Originally featured at length, with many excerpts, Cage quotes, and photos, in July.

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How To Write Letters: A Vintage Guide to the Lost Art of Epistolary Etiquette, 1876

"A letter should be regarded not merely as a medium for the communication of intelligence, but also as a work of art."

As a lover of old letters, I have a special soft spot for the lost art of letter-writing – an art robbed of romance and even basic courtesy in the age of rapid-fire, efficiency-obsessed, typed-with-one-thumb-on-a-tiny-keyboard communication. So I was utterly delighted to discover a rare and remarkable little book titled How To Write Letters (UK; public library; public domain) – a "manual of correspondence, showing the correct structure, composition, punctuation, formalities, and uses of the various kinds of Letters, Notes and Cards," written in 1876 by J. Willis Westlake, an English Literature professor at the State Normal School in Millersville, Pennsylvania. From how to address the recipient and sign your name to the conventions of business vs. social vs. personal letters to the most elegant way to fold the sheet, Westlake presents a guide not only to the craft of writing letters, but also to the conceptual elements of composition and the role of letters as social currency.

At once delightfully dated in many of its cultural assumptions – particularly the epistolary norms for the sexes – and charmingly urbane in its practical prescriptions, this tiny treasure tells us as much about the long-lost era of its origin as it does about the standards we've chosen, and chosen to leave behind, in our own. Above all, it reminds us that sentiment lives not only in what is being communicated but also in how it is being communicated – an osmosis all the more important today, when cold screens and electronic text have left the written word homogenized and devoid of expressive form.

Westlake begins:

Nearly all the writing of most persons is in the form of letters; and yet in many of our schools this kind of composition is almost entirely neglected. This neglect is probably due in some measure to the fact that heretofore there has been no complete and systematic treatise on the subject of letter-writing. When it is considered, that in the art of correspondence there is much that is conventional, requiring a knowledge of social customs, which, if not early taught, is obtained only after many years of observation and experience; and that the possession or want of this knowledge does much to determine a person's standing in cultured society,– the value of this art, and of a thorough text-book by which it may be taught, will be duly appreciated.


As letter-writing is the most generally practiced, so also is it the most important, practically considered, of all kinds of composition.

He makes a note on quantity vs. quality:

Take pains; write as plainly and neatly as possible – rapidly if you can, slowly if you must. Good writing affects us sympathetically, giving us a higher appreciation both of what is written and of the person who wrote it. Don't say, I haven't time to be so particular. Take time; or else write fewer letters and shorter ones. A neat well-worded letter of one page once a month is better than a slovenly scrawl of four pages once a week. In fact, bad letters are like store bills: the fewer and the shorter they are, the better pleased is the recipient.

He then goes on to list several guidelines for an excellent letter:

  1. Style of Writing. – All flourishing is out of place in a letter. The writing should be plain and, if possible, elegant, so that it maybe both easy to read and gratifying to the taste. The most fashionable style for ladies is what is called the English running-hand. A rather fine hand is preferable for ladies, and a medium one for gentlemen. A person who writes a large hand should use large paper and leave wide spaces between the lines.
  2. Skipping Pages. – After reaching the bottom of the first page, it is generally better to continue the letter on the second, instead of passing to the third; because the writer may find more to say than he at first thought of, and after having filled the first and third pages, may be compelled to go back to the second, and thence to the fourth.
  3. Crossing. – Many persons, ladies especially, have a habit of crossing their letters. It is better not to do it. If one sheet is not large enough to hold all you have to say without crossing, take an extra half-sheet, or a sheet if need be. Crossing does not seem to be entirely respectful to your friend; for it implies (though he may not so understand it) that you do not think enough of him to use any more paper on his account. Besides, crossed writing is hard to read; and you have no right to task your friend's eyesight and tax his time by compelling him to decipher it. Cross-lining came into use when paper was dear and postage high. Then there was some excuse for it. Now there is none.
  4. Blots and Interlineations. – Of course no blots are allowable. Better rewrite the letter than send a blotted one. And avoid, as far as possible, interlineations and erasures. A few words my be interlined in a very small hand, but even a single interlined word mars the beauty of a page. A letter should be regarded not merely as a medium for the communication of intelligence, but also as a work of art. As beauty of words, tone, and manner adds a charm to speech, so elegance of materials, writing, and general appearance, enhances the pleasure bestowed by a letter.

A separate chapter explores the rhetoric of letters, "the art of expressing thought and feeling in letters with clearness, force, and elegance," emphasizing the importance of an incubation period for ideas and the organization of knowledge, and stressing the curatorial element of composition:

The general principles applicable to the composition of letters will be discussed under two heads : 1. Invention; 2. Expression.

Invention is the action of the mind that precedes writing. In all kinds of composition, there are two things necessary: first, to have something to say; second, to say it. Invention is finding something to say. It is the most difficult part of composition, as it is a purely intellectual process, requiring originality, talent, judgment, and information; while expression is to some extent a matter of mechanical detail, and subject to rules that can be easily understood and applied. A person can write out in a few weeks or months a work the invention of which requires the thought and labor of many years. Yet both parts of composition are equally essential. It is certainly a noble thing to have great thoughts, but without the power of expressing them the finest sentiments are unavailable.

Invention includes two operations : (1.) The collection of materials; and (2.) their proper and orderly arrangement.

But perhaps most fascinating of all is a section on the etiquette and subtleties of paper and ink selection, itself a special kind of art that can communicate an extraordinary range of sentiments – something entirely lost to us in the age of digital type on sterile screens. Westlake advises:

Paper. – The paper used should be such as is suitable and intended for the purpose. It may now be had in infinite variety, adapted to all tastes and wants. … Never write a private letter on foolscap paper: to do so is awkward, clumsy, and generally inexcusable. If compelled to use it, for want of any other, an apology should be offered.

Never send a half-sheet letter, except on business: and never send less than a half-sheet under any circumstances. For a social letter, even if you write only a line or two, use a whole sheet. To use part of a sheet looks mean and stingy, and is disrespectful to the receiver.

Color. – No color is more elegant and tasteful than white, for any kind of letter, and gentlemen should use no other. Ladies may use delicately tinted and perfumed paper if they choose, but for a man to use it is, to say the least, in very bad taste. For business letters, no color is allowable but pure or bluish white.

Persons who have lost a near relative may use 'mourning paper' – that is, paper with a black border – and envelopes to match; the width of the border corresponding somewhat to the nearness of the relationship and the recentness of the bereavement.

He then moves on to envelopes:

The envelope should be adapted, both in size and color, to the paper. … Gentlemen may use either white or buff envelopes in writing to each other ; but it is not allowable to send a buff envelope to a lady, nor do ladies use that kind at all. If tinted paper is used, the envelope must have the same tint. … Both paper and envelopes should be of fine quality. It conduces to fine penmanship, and perhaps inspires the writer with fine thoughts. Coarse paper, coarse language, coarse thoughts, – all coarse things seem to be associated.

And let's not forget the ink:

Never write a letter with red ink. Indeed, it is in better taste to discard all fancy inks, and use simple black. It is the most durable color, and one never tires of it. At one time purple ink was used in the War Department at Washington; but the discovery was afterwards made that this color would fade, and an order was issued that all the records that had been made with purple ink should be recopied with black ink.

Even today, we read a great deal into email sign-offs – their warmth or coldness, the degree of familiarity they connote, the expectation they imply. Westlake offers several examples, including ones by famous historical figures, of what is known as the "complimentary close"::

The Complimentary Close is the phrase of courtesy, respect, or endearment used at the end of a letter. As in the salutation, the particular words used vary according to circumstance.

Social letters admit of an almost infinite variety of forms of complimentary close. The following are a few out of many examples that might be given: –

Your friend; Your sincere friend; Yours with esteem; Yours very respectfully; Your loving daughter; Your affectionate father; Ever yours; Yours affectionately and for ever (Jefferson); Ever, my dear Fields, faithfully yours (Dickens); Ever your affectionate friend (Dickens); Yours heartily and affectionately (Dickens); Now and always your own; Ever, my dear Mr. – , most gratefully and faithfully yours (Miss Mitford); I am, my dearest friend, most affectionately and kindly yours (John Adams to his wife); Believe me always your affectionate father (Sir Walter Scott); Yours very sincerely (Hannah Moore); Your obliged and affectionate friend (Bishop Heber); Sincerely and entirely yours.

Westlake concludes with a few general notes on the value of letter-writing:

There is no other kind of writing that possesses for us such a living, human interest, as letters; for there is no other that comes so near to the private lives, 'to the business and bosoms,' of the writers. Though written, as all genuine letters are, for the private eye of one or two familiar friends, and without any thought of their publication, they nevertheless often form the most interesting and imperishable of an author's productions.


And it is this natural and unstudied character that renders their style so attractive. In other productions there is the restraint induced by the feeling that a thousand eyes are peering over the writer's shoulder and scrutinizing every word; while letters are written when the mind is as it were in dressing-gown and slippers – free, natural, active, perfectly at home, and with all the fountains of fancy, wit, and sentiment in full play.

He ends by making a case for the value of letters in culture and society, recognizing the importance of influence in forming one's own style and the role of imitation in all art:

Epistolary literature is valuable, in the first place, to the student of history and biography. 'Nothing," as Horace Walpole justly observes,' gives so just an idea of an age as genuine letters; nay, history waits for its last seal for them;' and Bacon says that 'letters of affairs . . . are, of all others, the best instructions of history, and to a diligent reader the best histories themselves.' To a biographer, this literature is almost indispensable; for in his letters we get nearer than anywhere else to a man's inner life – to his motives, principles, and intentions. A man will often confide to the ear of friendship things that policy or pride compels him to withhold from the public. Our best biographies, indeed, are those that are most autobiographical; those that are drawn most largely from the letters and conversations of their subjects.

It is valuable, secondly, to the general reader ; and for three reasons: –

  1. Because of the knowledge it imparts of the persons and events described.
  2. Because of its moral influence. It brings us into intimate companionship with the great and good who have lived before us ; laying bare, as it were, their inmost hearts for our inspection; showing us how they thought, felt, suffered, and triumphed ; and leading us to emulate their virtues and avoid their errors.
  3. Because it is a means of literary culture. Besides the general literary influence that it has in common with other good reading, it has a direct and powerful effect in the formation of a good epistolary style. Whatever may be said to the contrary, every man's style is formed, to a great extent, by unconscious imitation.

Complement How To Write Letters with Philip Hensher's bittersweet The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting, then fast forward a century to this 1981 guide to the art of great presentations.

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The Best Graphic Novels and Graphic Nonfiction of 2012

From music history to war trials by way of Hunter S. Thompson and Steve Jobs, with a side of Ancient China.

How to Give a Great Presentation: Timeless Advice from a Legendary Adman, 1981

"No speech was ever too short."

All the 2012 Best-of Reading Lists, Together at Last

The year's finest reading, organized by subject – art, science, design, psychology, history, children's, and more.

Illustrated Alphabetic Drop Cap Covers of Literary Classics by Jessica Hische

Austen, Brönte, Cather, Dickens, Eliot, Flaubert.

Rent Is Too Damn High, Vonnegut Edition: The Beloved Author's Apartment Woes

"You wonder what creates beatniks? Landlords!"

5½ Favorite Food Books of 2012

From Thomas Jefferson to the secret history of coffee, by way of urban farming and Downton Abbey.

The Overview Effect and the Psychology of Cosmic Awe

The spirituality of space exploration as self-exploration.

The Little Golden Book of Words: A Rare Illustrated Gem from 1948

Places to go, things to do, people to meet, and other illustrated essentials of daily living.

Mark Twain on Morality vs. Intelligence

"If intellect is welcome anywhere in the other world, it is in hell, not heaven."

Simone de Beauvoir on Ambiguity, Vitality, and Freedom

"The drama of original choice is that it goes on moment by moment for an entire lifetime."

In Defense of the Fluid Self: Why Anaïs Nin Turned Down a Harper's Bazaar Profile

"I am more interested in human beings than in writing, more interested in lovemaking than in writing, more interested in living than in writing."

Amelia Earhart on Marriage

"I cannot guarantee to endure at all times the confinements of even an attractive cage."

More Than Human: Tim Flach’s Striking Portraits of Animals

Sentient beings like you've never seen them before.

The Science of Our Optimism Bias and the Life-Cycle of Happiness

"To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities, and not just any old reality but a better one."

Adrienne Rich on Creative Process, Love, Loss, and Public vs. Private Happiness

A time-capsule of mid-century cultural contrasts.

Montaigne on Death and the Art of Living

"To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago."

A Secret Illustrated History of Coffee, Coca, and Cola

What America's premier anti-drug autocrat has to do with Bach and helping Coke import illegal coca leaves.

Little Big Books: What Makes Great Children’s Picture Book Illustration

"The picture book serves as a personal, private art gallery, held in the hand, to be revisited over and over again."

The Fine Art of Italian Hand Gestures: A Vintage Visual Dictionary by Bruno Munari

A pocket guide to Neapolitan nonverbal communication.

Remembering the Godfather of World Music: Ravi Shankar + Philip Glass, 1990

East meets West in an exquisite meeting of the minds, hearts, and strings.

What's a Dog For?

"If you resist too much the power of the big primary-color emotions that surround the dog, you're missing the experience."

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