Lennon's letters offer intimate insight

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The cover of The John Lennon Letters.Photo / Supplied
The cover of The John Lennon Letters.Photo / Supplied

One of the main reasons Facebook, Twitter and other voyeuristic social networking tools are popular is pretty obvious - we like to spy on other people.

I've always been a fan of reading letters of long-gone celebrities. Many famous writers were also compulsive note-writers. There have been volumes of letters produced by Ernest Hemingway, J.R.R. Tolkien, Virginia Woolf, Abraham Lincoln, amongst others.

It might be a dying art form, but a handsome new book shows the fleeting beauty tossed-off notes and messages can have.

The John Lennon Letters, compiled by Beatles biographer Hunter S. Davies, features dozens of notes written by Lennon in his lifetime and is a cornucopia for both Beatlemaniacs and letter-spies.

"Lennon lived before computers and email and texts and his first reaction was to write things down," Davies writes.

"He saw them as a little performance."

The John Lennon Letters is a well designed book for die-hard Beatles fans, featuring nearly 300 of Lennon's letters extensively notated and reproduced with his own squiggly handwriting and scribbly cartoons. Each letter has had its history tracked down by Davies, and the context is invaluable, making this a kind of scrapbook biography of Lennon through his letters.

Its scattered contents include everything from letters to fans and other famous folks to mundane shopping lists and surreal insults. Many of the later letters get so lost in Lennon's cryptic wordplay that they're like reading James Joyce's Ulysses to decipher.

One curious omission in the book is any real letters between John and his wife Yoko Ono. Davies says they barely ever wrote each other as they were always together. However, there are plenty of letters that hint at real emotion from behind Lennon's joking, caustic exterior like the early letters to his first wife, Cynthia, or his friend Stuart Sutcliffe, who was briefly a member of the Beatles and died of brain haemorrhage at only 21.

In a 1961 letter to Sutcliffe, Lennon writes: "I can't remember anything without a sadness so deep that it hardly becomes known to me."

This was well before Love Me Do and She Loves You, but the darker Lennon of "Plastic Ono Band" is already evident.

And it's hard not to read a line from a 1979 letter without wincing, just a bit: "I'm 40 next year - I hope life begins."

Lennon's image has gone through many reinventions since his early death, from hippie saint to grouchy genius. What's great about The John Lennon Letters is every facet of his complicated, imperfect personality shines through.

The golden age of the letter may have passed, but a tome like this is a reminder of what a window into a person's mind they could be.

The best books of correspondence:

1. Fear and Loathing in America by Hunter S. Thompson: Thompson was a prolific letter-hack and this volume collects hundreds of letters from 1968 to 1976, as America rambled through the 60s, Vietnam, Watergate and more.

2. The Portable Abraham Lincoln: America's greatest president created some fine letters, speeches and other writings. A highlight is the letter to Lydia Bixby, a widow who lost five sons in the US Civil War.

3. Kurt Vonnegut: Letters: Published just in time to mark what would have been Vonnegut's 90th birthday, this massive tome is a treasure trove of wry wit and curmudgeonly observations, including a harrowing letter on his combat experiences in Dresden, Germany during World War II.

4. The Adams-Jefferson Letters: A joint book collecting the correspondence between the second and third American presidents in the final years of their lives, from 1777 to 1826. It touches on both the political and the personal in a take on American history by two who were there from the start.

The Yage Letters by William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg: A fascinating piece of druggy history, featuring letters written by Burroughs while on a South American trip to track down the legendary yage vine, which was claimed to possess strange powers. It's hallucinogenic travel tales and quite possibly halfway made up, but also terrific letter-writing.

* The John Lennon Letters, published by Little, Brown and Company is available now. RRP NZ$59.99.

Do you enjoy reading other people's letters? What are your favourite compilations of correspondence?

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