The John Lennon Letters: When Your Whole Life is on Paper

Lennon and Life on Paper

“I don’t keep a diary and I throw away nearly all the paper I might have kept. I don’t keep an archive. There’s something worrying about my make-up that I try to leave no trace of myself apart from my plays. “
– Tom Stoppard


Our lives on paper live on after we are gone. And if you are famous, every scrap of paper will be saved. A newly released collection of correspondence entitled The John Lennon Letters, edited by Lennon biographer Hunter Davies, contains over 400 pages of annotated correspondence from Lennon. (Hardcover, Little, Brown and Company,  list price 29.99) Most reviewers, however, note that practically all informative correspondence from Lennon had already been published, and Davies collection is being skewered by the critics as a “scraping of the bottom of the barrel” – an attempt to profit from anything written by the hand of the famous Beatle. Here is a painstakingly organized collection of letters, notes, post-its, postcards and paper scraps that seems in total to reveal very little others than mundane details of the former Beatles’ daily life and some not-so-flattering personal qualities. Reviewer Neil McCormick of The Telegraph says all we really learn about Lennon from this mountain of paper is: “Well, he couldn’t spell. He liked to doodle. And he had way too much spare time on his hands.”

Not exactly a glowing review. Often the correspondence of famous people, whether writers, musicians or politicians, contains a wealth of valuable insight and factual data about the person’s life, private thoughts, emotional state and philosophy of life. Successfully published collections include the letters of Emily Dickinson, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Richard Nixon… and a long list of works that have made many publishers very happy. In many cases, the only hard evidence we have of the private thoughts and feelings of these luminaries are in the archive of their journals, correspondence and personal papers.

However, we are leaving less and less of a paper trail through life. I wonder how in the digital age the role of paper will be different for the famous and infamous. Libraries and historical societies collect the correspondence of great thinkers, artists and politicians to serve as a primary source for further research. Even bar napkins, margin notes scribbled in books, newspaper clippings or anything bearing the subject’s handwriting is considered significant. But we put less of those things onto paper now than ever before. As our ‘footprints’ become increasingly virtual rather than physical, will these archives be data banks rather than stacks of paper? Will they catalogue blogs, emails, Twitter timelines, social media connections and text messages? Will people, wary of a lack of security when “writing” on a computer, still keep private handwritten journals or diaries?

And what about the rest of us? Are we leaving behind us a trail of thoughts, words and feelings that can be accumulated, researched and categorized without our control or input? The days of tossing the diary into the fire or shoving documents through a paper shredder to hide them for eternity seem to be gone. It will take newly refined skills in research and interpretation to assess the changing archive of information we leave behind as everything from our important documents to our shopping lists live on in computer memory.


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