Before returning to college in 2000, my own readings via my natural curiosity influenced my understanding of history. In particular, I started reading the work of the late Daniel J. Boorstin, and books like The Americans (1973), The Discoverers (1983), The Creators (1992), and Cleopatra's Nose: Essays on the Unexpected (1994) provided me with an appreciation for history that had previously eluded me.
After I returned to college and was finishing my BA, I wrote Boorstin a letter and discussed how his writing was influential in my decision to become a historian. I mentioned how I read years earlier The Discoverers on a plane while traveling on business, and while I did not see the proverbial light of awakening that exact moment, his book opened my eyes to the possibilities that might lie ahead were I to return to school.
The letter was really an impulsive act, and I cannot remember what prompted me to dash off the note. I might have picked up one of his books again, or perhaps heard his name mentioned, but I was never the type to mail unsolicited letters to people I had never met.
I never expected a reply, figuring he was a busy man, but much to my surprise I received a handwritten letter from his wife. At the time of my letter Boorstin had been quite ill, and Mrs. Boorstin wrote that her husband was "moved to tears" by my praise; Boorstin died just a few short months later.
A lump appeared in my own throat upon reading that letter, and I tried to imagine the scene as a dying Daniel J. Boorstin, hands shaking and hooked up with IVs and electrodes, read my note. I then understood the tremendous power that a simple letter can summon, and that too often in life we wait until it is too late to thank those who have guided and shaped us.
I encourage anyone reading this blog post to stop and write a thank you letter today to someone who influenced you in a positive way. It brought my heart gladness to know that I unwittingly provided a dying man a profound sense of accomplishment for his life's work, and that I perhaps helped ease his burdens for a few minutes.
All with a short and heartfelt letter.