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Posts Tagged ‘books’

26 MARCH, 2013

Viktor Frankl on the Human Search for Meaning

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“Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”

Celebrated Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, born on March 26, 1905, remains best-known for his indispensable 1946 psychological memoir Man’s Search for Meaning (public library) — a meditation on what the gruesome experience of Auschwitz taught him about the primary purpose of life: the quest for meaning, which sustained those who survived.

For Frankl, meaning came from three possible sources: purposeful work, love, and courage in the face of difficulty.

In examining the “intensification of inner life” that helped prisoners stay alive, he considers the transcendental power of love:

Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.

Frankl illustrates this with a stirring example of how his feelings for his wife — who was eventually killed in the camps — gave him a sense of meaning:

We were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces. I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “Yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. “Et lux in tenebris lucet” — and the light shineth in the darkness. For hours I stood hacking at the icy ground. The guard passed by, insulting me, and once again I communed with my beloved. More and more I felt that she was present, that she was with me; I had the feeling that I was able to touch her, able to stretch out my hand and grasp hers. The feeling was very strong: she was there. Then, at that very moment, a bird flew down silently and perched just in front of me, on the heap of soil which I had dug up from the ditch, and looked steadily at me.

Of humor, “another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation,” Frankl writes:

It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds. … The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent.

Lithograph by Leo Haas, Holocaust artist who survived Theresienstadt and Auschwitz (public domain)

After discussing the common psychological patterns that unfold in inmates, Frankl is careful to challenge the assumption that human beings are invariably shaped by their circumstances. He writes:

But what about human liberty? Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings? … Most important, do the prisoners’ reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings? Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?

We can answer these questions from experience as well as on principle. The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. … Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

[…]

[E]verything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Much like William James did in his treatise on habit, Frankl places this notion of everyday choice at the epicenter of the human experience:

Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.

Like Henry Miller and Philip K. Dick, Frankl recognizes suffering as an essential piece not only of existence but of the meaningful life:

If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not. … Such men are not only in concentration camps. Everywhere man is confronted with fate, with the chance of achieving something through his own suffering.

In working as a psychiatrist to the inmates, Frankl found that the single most important factor in cultivating the kind of “inner hold” that allowed men to survive was teaching them to hold in the mind’s grip some future goal. He cites Nietzsche’s, who wrote that “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,” and admonishes against generalization:

Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost. The typical reply with which such a man rejected all encouraging arguments was, “I have nothing to expect from life any more.” What sort of answer can one give to that?

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. “Life” does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand.

Lithograph by Leo Haas, Holocaust artist who survived Theresienstadt and Auschwitz (public domain)

In considering the human capacity for good and evil and the conditions that bring out indecency in decent people, Frankl writes:

Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn. The boundaries between groups overlapped and we must not try to simplify matters by saying that these men were angels and those were devils.

[…]

From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two — the “race” of the decent man and the “race” of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people. In this sense, no group is of “pure race” — and therefore one occasionally found a decent fellow among the camp guards.

Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths. Is it surprising that in those depths we again found only human qualities which in their very nature were a mixture of good and evil? The rift dividing good from evil, which goes through all human beings, reaches into the lowest depths and becomes apparent even on the bottom of the abyss which is laid open by the concentration camp.

The second half of the book presents Frankl’s singular style of existential analysis, which he termed “logotherapy” — a method of healing the soul by cultivating the capacity to find a meaningful life:

Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. Thus, logotherapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence.

This emphasis on responsibleness is reflected in the categorical imperative of logotherapy, which is: “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”

Frankl contributes to history’s richest definitions of love:

Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.

Frankl wrote the book over the course of nine consecutive days, with the original intention of publishing it anonymously, but upon his friends’ insistent advice, he added his name in the last minute. In the introduction to the 1992 edition, in reflecting upon the millions of copies sold in the half-century since the original publication, Frankl makes a poignant meta-comment about something George Saunders recently echoed, noting:

In the first place I do not at all see in the bestseller status of my book an achievement and accomplishment on my part but rather an expression of the misery of our time: if hundreds of thousands of people reach out for a book whose very title promises to deal with the question of a meaning to life, it must be a question that burns under their fingernails. … At first, however, it had been written with the absolute conviction that, as an anonymous opus, it could never earn its author literary fame.

In the same introduction, he shares a piece of timeless advice on success he often gives his students:

Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run—in the long run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.

(Hugh MacLeod famously articulated the same sentiment when he wrote that “The best way to get approval is not to need it.”)

If there ever were a universal reading list of existential essentials, Man’s Search for Meaning would, without a shadow of a doubt, be on it.

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25 MARCH, 2013

Gay Talese’s Field Guide to the Social Order of New York’s Cats, Illustrated

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A rare and wonderful 1961 taxonomy of Gotham’s feline fraternity from the godfather of literary journalism.

Cats, not unlike dogs, seem to have claimed the role of literary muses, from Joyce’s children’s books to T. S. Eliot’s poetry to Hemingway’s heart, by way of various other bookish cameos. In 1961, 29-year-old Gay Talese penned New York: A Serendipiter’s Journey (public library) — an obscure out-of-print gem, in which the beloved icon of literary journalism paints an immersive, vibrant portrait of Gotham’s secret life, from its 8,485 telephone operators to its 5,000 prostitutes to its one chauffeur who has a chauffeur, and the entire bubbling cauldron of humanity in between.

Among the singular subcultures Talese explores is the city’s feline fraternity:

When street traffic dwindles and most people are sleeping, some New York neighborhoods begin to crawl with cats. They move quickly through the shadows of building; night watchmen, policemen, garbage collectors and other nocturnal wanderers see them — but never for very long. A majority of them hang around the fish markets, in Greenwich Village and in the East and West Side neighborhoods where garbage can abound. No part of the city is without its strays, however, and all-night garage attendants in such busy neighborhood as Fifty-fourth Street have counted as many as twenty of then around the Ziegfeld Theatre early in the morning. Troops of cats patrol the waterfront piers at night searching for rats. Subway trackwalkers have discovered cats living in the darkness. They seem never to get hit by trains, though some are occasionally liquidated by the third Rail. About twenty-five cats live 75 feet below the west end of Grand Central Terminal, are fed by the underground workers, and never wander up into the daylight.

The roving, independent, self-laundering cats of the streets live a life strangely different from New York’s kept, apartment-house cats.

[…]

Social climbing among the stray cats of Gotham is not common. They rarely acquire a better mailing address out of choice. They usually die within the blocks of their birth, although one flea-bitten specimen picked up by the ASPCA was adopted by a wealthy woman; it now lives in a luxurious East Side apartment and spends the summer at the lady’s estate on Long Island.

Photograph by Martin Lichtner, New York: A Serendipiter's Journey

Talese goes on to illuminate the hierarchy of the feline social order:

In every New York neighborhood the strays are dominated by a ‘boss’ — the largest, strongest tomcat. But, except for the boss, there is not much organization in the street’s cat society. Within the society, however, there are three ‘types’ of cats — wild cats, Bohemians, and part-time grocery store (or restaurant) cats.

The wild cats rely on an occasional loose garbage lid or on rats for food, wand will have little or nothing to do with people — even those who would feed them. These most unkept of strays have a recognizable haunted look, a wide-eyed, wild expression, and they usually are found around the waterfront.

The Bohemian, however, is more tractable. It does not run from people. Often, it is fed in the streets daily by sensitive cat-lovers (mostly women) who call the strays ‘little people,’ ‘angels,’ or ‘darlings,’ and are indignant when the objects of their charity are referred to as ‘alley cats.’ So punctual are most Bohemians at feeding time that one cat-lover has advanced the theory that cats can tell time. He cited a gray tabby that appears five days a week, precisely at 5:30 P.M., in an office building at Broadway and Seventeenth Street, where the elevator men feed it. But the cat never shows up on Saturday or Sundays; it seems to know people don’t work on those days.

The part-time grocery store (or restaurant) cat, often a reformed Bohemian, eats well and keeps rodents away, but it usually uses the store as a hotel and prefers to spend the nights prowling in the streets. Despite its liberal working schedule, it still assumes most of the privileges of a related breed — the full-time, or wholly nonstray, grocery store at — including the right to sleep in the window. A reformed Bohemian at a Bleecker Street delicatessen hides behind the door and chases away all other Bohemians looking for hangouts.

Having just finished an advance copy of the inimitable Wendy MacNaughton’s forthcoming Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology — a heartbreaking, heartwarming, hopelessly hilarious treasure of a tale, penned by writer extraordinaire Caroline Paul and tenderly illustrated by Wendy herself — I couldn’t resist asking Wendy, a frequent collaborator, to illustrate Talese’s feline archetypes. She kindly and brilliantly obliged:

UPDATE: Lost Cat is here!

But, of course, this being Talese, we soon realize cats are but a vehicle for driving home a larger point about New York changing landscape and the era’s tectonic cultural shifts:

The number of full-time cats, incidentally, has diminished greatly since the decline of the small food store and the rise of supermarkets in New York, With better rat-proofing methods, improved packaging of foods and more sanitary conditions, such chain stores as the A&P rarely keep a cat full-time.

Wedged between E. B. White’s indispensable 1949 classic Here Is New York and Jan Morris’s 1987 literary travelogue Manhattan 45, New York: A Serendipiter’s Journey is exquisite in its entirety. Its title, aptly so, is an allusion to the fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, who in their travels were constantly finding splendid and interesting things they didn’t expect or seek.

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25 MARCH, 2013

Mark Twain’s Fan Mail

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“This world would not be satisfying unless one person were allowed to express gratitude and thanks to another.”

One spring day in 1909, a little boy found his mother’s magazine clipping — the portrait of a man bearing “the aureole of sunny hair” — and asked her this was God. She chuckled with equal parts amazement and amusement, and got to writing the man in question a letter to recount the delightful incident — not only because of its inherent charm, but because her son had intuited a shared cultural sentiment: The man pictured was Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain — one of the most revered men in all the land.

Over the course of his prolific career, Twain received countless letters from his adoring readers and, occasionally, his critics. Two hundred of them, written according to the style of he era’s wonderfully quaint epistolary etiquette, are collected in Dear Mark Twain: Letters from His Readers (public library) — a magnificent, remarkably researched book by Twain scholar R. Kent Rasmussen, featuring adulation, criticism, and a range of audacious requests Clemens received between 1861 and his death in 1910 from correspondents spanning school children, businessmen, farmers, political activists, con artists, teachers, and housewives. Most stirring of all, however, is the fan mail Twain received — a timeless testament to the soul-stirring power of earnest gratitude. A small sampling:

On April 18, 1894, Twain heard from a young lawyer named Henry E. Barrett:

Dear Sir: —

It seems that this world would not be satisfying unless one person were allowed to express gratitude and thanks to another. It has struck me as wrong that I should go on and not say to you what I feel.

From my boyhood, when I was kept from play by my interest in “Tom Sawyer” and “Huck Finn,” till now, your books and stories have given me more genuine pleasure than those of any other author. I think so often of the many pleasant hours you have given me and have made up to me the lack some times of pleasant companions. Mr. Clemens, please accept this in the spirit that it is sent for the intention is good.

My wishes are that you may for many years continue to cheer the sorrowful and make burden bearing easier.

Yours Respectfully,
Henry E. Barrett.

On October 17, 1906, a dying man wrote Twain:

Dear Mark Twain:

Writing this letter is one of the pleasantest duties I have to perform before leaving for “Hell or Hadleyburg” — which the doctor tells me must be soon now.

In fact I’m living beyond my time, — because he said Oct 15 was my last day “on live” — The only reason I didn’t die on that date was that I wanted to read your latest story in Harpers. Some people see Naples and die, — I prefer to read Mark Twain & die. I’ve never seen Naples, — and dont expect to. I’ve read almost everything youve written, — and when I finish your whole output I’ll give up seeing Naples and die happily without that privilege.

But —

I want to thank you for all the pleasure your books have given me during many years of confinement to my room. Life would frequently have been dull indeed had it not been for the companionship of Huck Finn, Col. Sellers, et al.

When I get to Hell the greatest torture that I will have will be the possible knowledge that you shall have written something else I shall not be permitted to read.

Yours gratefully
Benj Ochiltree.

On October 19 of the same year, an Irishman named Chris Healey sent Twain this heart-warming and deeply personal story, one of many he received:

Dear Mr Clements,

As an Irish admirer of yours who has travelled 4000 miles mainly to see you, may I request the privilege of calling on you to pay my respects.

Indeed I might claim this as a right. Here is the proof: Twenty four years ago a little Irish boy lay dying in a Liverpool hospital. The nurse spoke to him very kindly — a bad sign –& asked if there was anything he would like, which was even worse. In hospitals politeness is saved only for those who will soon be beyond the need of it. He wearily asked for a book to read, & they gave him “Babylon” by Grant Allen. There was a quaint American interest in the book which made the boy discover America for the first time. Before that it had been only a place on a map. Then he became interested, threw the first book away, & demanded one about America –& they gave him Huckleberry Finn. He read it, & laughed, & laughed, & laughed, until he fell into the first sound sleep he had had for a fortnight. When he awoke twenty six years later — it was only hours, but it seemed years since he had read the book — he hollered for it again, & got it, & had some breakfast, the first for a week, The nurse was rude to him but he didn’t mind — he had Huckleberry under his pillow. This is why he didn’t pay much attention to the doctor’s remark that it was a miraculous recovery, & Nature still had a fat purseful of miracles left. The boy only grinned, & knew better: it was Mark Twain.

On December 13 of the same year, a young women who had grown up cherishing Twain’s writing, wrote him:

Dear Mark Twain:

Ever since I read, in my childhood, my first story from your pen, it has been the great desire of my life to meet Mark Twain.

Now, I am a woman of five and thirty, and the years are flying, and the goal of my desire seems to recede as I approach. Yet, strange to say — strange, because nearly all childish desires change in the lapse of years — the desire is still as strong within me as ever it was.

Once I saw you. I was only a child — but I marked that day with a white stone. You were driving, and it was all I could do to keep myself from running after your carriage and crying, “Please, Mr. Mark Twain, stay long enough to speak to a little girl who thinks you are the greatest man on earth.”

I am sure I should not have so much self control now. But youth is so hopeful of opportunities. — You must be overwhelmed with such communications as this — and yet. The longing is still great within me to run after your carriage and cry “Stop long enough to speak to a little girl who still thinks you the greatest man on earth.”

Cally Ryland

On rare occasions, Twain replied to his readers in a few well-measured words, as he did Ryland:

Dear Miss Ryland:

I am thankful to say that such letters as yours do come — as you have divined — with a happy frequency. They refresh my life, they give it value; like yours, they are always welcome, and I am always grateful for them. Sincerely

Yours
[signed:]
SL. Clemens

Twain received a plethora of requests for photos and autographs, most of which he found gratuitous and didn’t respond to . But on December 29, 1906, a poor and barely literate Englishwoman sent him an irresistibly sincere personal story, coupled with a modest request:

Mr S. L. Clemens,

Dear Sir

I wonder if you would care to hear how much my husband & self appreciate your books. We have been married 4 years & I have bought him one of your works each birthday & at Christmas. He is never tired of reading them & they keep him at home many a time when he would be out at night He reads them aloud to me & I enjoy the reading as much as himself. The reason I am writing is to beg a favour of you. Would you be kind enough to give me your phota so that I can give my husband a surprise on his next birthday? We have one hung up that I cut from a paper but I should dearly prize a real phota I dont seem able to come across one here & we arent so well off else I might if I was rich. My husband earns £ 1/-per week as a booking clerk on the railway. We have a little boy six months & his father says when he is older he will tell him about poor little Huck & Tom Sawyer. Perhaps you will be too great a man to answer this & grant my request as we are only humble cottagers. I trust Ive done no harm writing. I have just been reading some extracts in our paper copied from your articles in the “North American Review” I am sorry you lost your daughter Susy you seem to have had a lot of trouble in your life but you always come up smiling. This seems a long letter but I will have to pay 2 ½ to post so I will get my money’s worth. The only thing is I am sorry you arent an Englishman & more especially a Lancashire man, perhaps you will put this in the fire I hope I have a phota from you

I beg to remain
Yours respectfully

Edith Draper

Clemens wrote back a little over two weeks later:

I will comply with pleasure, dear Mrs Edith. My secretary will choose a photo which will go handily in the mail & I will autograph it. Indeed I shouldn’t regret it if I were an Englishman –& particularly a Lancashire man.

Sincerely Yours

S L . Clemens

[enclosure, written on a photograph of Clemens on a rocking chair:]

To Mrs. Edith Draper
with the best wishes of
Mark Twain
New York

On Clemens’s seventy-second birthday, he received the following sweet note from a fourteen-year-old girl named Florence Benson:

My dear Mr. Clemens: I have seen in the New York Tribune this morning that to-day is your birthday — and it is mine too! I am writing to wish you many happy returns of the day and to tell you that I think Tom Sawyer is the nicest boy I have ever known.

Sincerely yours,

Florence Benson
(written in my best handwriting)

Twain, true to his beat, wrote back:

Dear Florence: Thank you for your nice note.

[Private.] I have always concealed it before, but now I am compelled to confess that I am Tom Sawyer!

Sincerely Your friend
S L . Clemens

On September 19, 1908, Twain received this moving personal confession from a Brooklyn minister named Frederick A. Wright:

Mr. S. L. Clemens,

Dear Sir,

I have wanted for a long time to time to thank you for the pleasure which your books have given me, but I have hesitated for fear that even thanks ought not to intrude on the privacy of a public character. But now I am making the venture. Having known Huck Finn twenty two years, and Tom and Sid and Mary and Aunt Polly still longer, I feel as if these friends might give me an introduction, especially so since the thing that I have enjoyed most in your books is the glimpse of yourself between the lines. So I have known you, though you have not known me. I only say how long I have enjoyed this, for if I should say how much I have enjoyed it, you might think me extravagant or insincere. My wife, (who remembers meeting you with her sister and cousins, when she was a little girl at the house of her uncle, Mr. Cable in New Orleans) says that I read Mark Twain the way old ladies read the Bible (I am a clergy man) — a chapter before going to bed.

Those boys and girls of your novels seem to me the most remarkable thing in American literature, and for me they have proved altogether the most enjoyable thing in American literature. I do not believe that any other literature has any representations of child life which are so universal and yet so concrete. I have a boy of my own now, and I am just having the fun of introducing them to him — these children that never grew up, “whose mortal years immortal youth became — ”

By the spring of 1910, newspapers were regularly reporting on Twain’s deteriorating health. On April 19, Twain received the following desperately heart-warming letter of support:

Dear Mark Twain: —

Together with all other reading men and women, I deeply sympathise with you in your illness, and also together with them I rejoice at the favorable reports from your bed-side which we receive from day to day.

You have given me more delights than any other author I ever read, and if everyone whom you have charmed as you have charmed me, were to write you now and tell you about it, the post-office at Redding would be blockaded for months to come. — I believe you are better loved than any other living man, and if the heart-felt wishes of each and all of us for your speedy recovery can avail you anything, I am sure you cannot remain long sick. Dear Mark, we simply cannot spare you, you must get well.

Again expressing my very best wishes,
I am Very Truly Your Friend
Geo. B. Byron

Three days later, Twain passed away. This was the last note from an adoring stranger he ever read.

Dear Mark Twain, the best such treasure since Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children, is an absolute treat in its entirety.

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