by Paula Bosse
Years ago I worked in the Rare Books department of an auction house. We shared our workspace with the Manuscript department, and I was always amazed that those catalogers were able to decipher old handwriting. One day I was shown a Civil War-era letter with this crazy criss-cross writing. In order to save paper (and/or save on the cost of mailing a letter), people would write what began as a standard letter format, but when they reached the bottom of the page, they would turn the sheet a quarter-turn and continue the letter, writing on top of what they had just written. I’ve heard you can get used to reading something like this, but I think that if I ever received such a letter that the mounting anxiety which would wrap itself around me when attempting to actually read it would have caused me to fold the letter quietly and put it away, unread.
I mean, look at this! The second image shows the same letter after a 90-degree rotation. (Both images are larger when clicked.) Pray that your letter never arrived with smeared ink — if it did, you might be looking at a cerebral embolism. Oy.
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