Review by C.J. Bunce
Whenever you read a Colin Solter book, you know what you’re going to get. Salter, author of 100 Speeches that Changed the World and the co-author of 100 Books that Changed the World, is bringing his next thought-provoking ideas to your bookstore next month, 100 Letters that Changed the World. As with his prior entries in the series, Solter doesn’t really assemble the 100 best, 100 favorite, or even 100 most important items in each category, but he brings to light primary references from history. In doing this he reminds readers as much as things change, they also manage to stay the same. Having read his earlier books, I find I’m as intrigued to learn what he has selected from the obscure as much as more expected finds.
In truth, not all of these letters changed the world, if anyone, as might be the case with a few suicide notes from popular culture across the decades. It also gives a bit more weight to letters that exist in their original form today, and letters that might fetch big dollars on the collector’s market. The most intriguing of the letters is a note from Abigail Adams to husband John Adams from 1776. Her letter decidedly did not change the world, because had Adams paid heed to her plea, women would have been included along with “all men” in the Declaration of Independence. But it is a fascinating secret from history nonetheless. Also fascinating is the final, jovial letter from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to his wife Constanze, including references to his peer Antonio Salieri.
More obvious, important entries in 100 Letters that Changed the World include the telegram informing FDR about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s open letter from a Birmingham jail, Nelson Mandela’s letters from prison, and words of King Henry VIII’s affections to Anne Boleyn, which indeed would forever alter the course of history in Europe, Christopher Columbus’s first report back to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1493, as well as Galileo mentioning his telescope whereby he first saw the moons of Jupiter and noted its military advantage for Italian naval efforts in 1610. And from the historic, but perhaps not so critical to human progress is the last telegram message from the RMS Titanic, a telegram from the Wright Brothers to their father of their successful first airplane flight, and Pliny the Younger’s letter to Tacitus describing the horrific deaths from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79.
Themes of some of the selections are espionage and defiance, like documented correspondence between Julius Caesar’s assassins after his murder and Joan of Arc’s threatening note to King Henry VI.
This book does not include photographs of all the letters, but does include some, excerpting key quotations from others. The most unique form of letter is JFK’s famous carved desk coconut that he used to save the crew of the PT-109 during World War II. The most amusing, a studio rejection letter to The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, stating, “The Beatles have no future in show business.”
An appendix includes photographs of two complete letters between friends Alexander Graham Bell and Helen Keller.
From publisher Universe in a full-color hardcover, 100 Letters that Changed the World would make a good choice for historians and high schoolers on up, and anyone interested in world history and culture. It arrives in bookstores in November and is available for pre-order now here at Amazon.