Marcel’s Letters

Marcel's Letters
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Published: June 6, 2017
While in search for an inspiration for her personal project of designing her own font, graphic designer Carolyn Porter stumbled across some letters from 1943-1944, written in French, by someone named Marcel. She couldn't understand the words but she fell in love with his handwriting. Years later, she had the letters translated and was suddenly wrapped up in Marcel's remarkable story.

Before I even read the summary of this book, the title and the font used on it, particularly the letter M, caught my attention. I love handwriting-style fonts, and this font is quite gorgeous. I delved into the book expecting to read about Marcel's letters (as in his written correspondences), but I was pleasantly surprised that the book is also about his letters (as in the letters he formed with his hands, his penmanship).

Carolyn Porter wrote about how she found the letters in a flea market, and even without being able to understand a word on it because it was written in French, she bought it because she found the penmanship beautiful. This penmanship would be the basis for her personal project, a handwriting-style font. I can appreciate this fascination, and I love how the author included a lot of technical details about font design without being overly technical about it. Somehow she managed to describe the long and arduous process of making a font without alienating readers like me, who don't really understand the technicalities. I enjoyed and appreciated how she shared her creative process. It was a lot of work, to be sure, but she didn't sound overly whiny or defeatist about it. I came away with a better understanding of how a personal passion project can really take years to complete. It's bittersweet, and if you're not careful, it can eat up a lot of your time and focus. The details of her passion project were interspersed with the story of Marcel, the man who wrote the letters that became the inspiration for her font.

Marcel's letters were dated between 1943 to 1944, and they had stamps that had Hitler's face on them. They were written during World War II and looked like they were sent from Germany. What was a Frenchman doing in Germany in 1943-44? Several years after working on her passion project, Porter decided to have the letters translated. Pretty soon, she found herself immersed in yet another project...that of unraveling the story of Marcel. She detailed all her efforts to trace Marcel's whereabouts in order to answer that nagging question--was Marcel able to make it home after the war?

This pursuit was itself filled with a lot of challenges and also took time and resources to work on. At times it was already beginning to sound like an obsession. After all, what did it matter if Marcel was able to go home or not, right? But it mattered to Carolyn Porter, and while reading the book and soaking in her thoughts, it began to matter to me too.

I really loved how she uncovered the historical context of Marcel's time in Germany. I can relate to how she felt. We know of the Holocaust, we know of World War II, Nazi Germany, Hitler, all the millions of people who suffered and died during those years, but we really actually don't know much to truly care. We don't have enough of a connection to it to let it inform the way that we live our lives today. The more you uncover the details and the more you are able to somehow put names and faces at a certain point in time during this dark corridor in history, the more it becomes vivid in your mind. It's like the dawning of understanding, when history stops being a vague collection of dates and events and personalities that we should know but we really don't grasp, and begins to be clearer and weightier.

Porter's journey of discovery was fascinating and engrossing. The details of her love for calligraphy, for type, and the birth of her first font was also fascinating. It resonated with me, and I feel like somehow we're kindred spirits, poring over and admiring written words on paper.

I was afraid at first that it would be a book about a handful of letters stretched and padded into a rambling account to force it into a book, but I loved how the author shared Marcel with the readers. She handled Marcel's story thoughtfully and respectfully. This is a very pleasant, memorable book. I enjoyed it from start to end.

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