Back in 1988, as part of an ad campaign to be printed in Time magazine, Volkswagen approached a number of notable thinkers and asked them to write a letter to the future—some words of advice to those living in 2088, to be precise. Many agreed, including novelist Kurt Vonnegut; his letter can be read below.

(Source: TIME, 1988; Image: Kurt Vonnegut, courtesy of Mike Schroeder.)

Ladies & Gentlemen of A.D. 2088:

It has been suggested that you might welcome words of wisdom from the past, and that several of us in the twentieth century should send you some. Do you know this advice from Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: ‘This above all: to thine own self be true’? Or what about these instructions from St. John the Divine: ‘Fear God, and give glory to Him; for the hour of His judgment has come’? The best advice from my own era for you or for just about anybody anytime, I guess, is a prayer first used by alcoholics who hoped to never take a drink again: ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.’

Our century hasn’t been as free with words of wisdom as some others, I think, because we were the first to get reliable information about the human situation: how many of us there were, how much food we could raise or gather, how fast we were reproducing, what made us sick, what made us die, how much damage we were doing to the air and water and topsoil on which most life forms depended, how violent and heartless nature can be, and on and on. Who could wax wise with so much bad news pouring in?

For me, the most paralyzing news was that Nature was no conservationist. It needed no help from us in taking the planet apart and putting it back together some different way, not necessarily improving it from the viewpoint of living things. It set fire to forests with lightning bolts. It paved vast tracts of arable land with lava, which could no more support life than big-city parking lots. It had in the past sent glaciers down from the North Pole to grind up major portions of Asia, Europe, and North America. Nor was there any reason to think that it wouldn’t do that again someday. At this very moment it is turning African farms to deserts, and can be expected to heave up tidal waves or shower down white-hot boulders from outer space at any time. It has not only exterminated exquisitely evolved species in a twinkling, but drained oceans and drowned continents as well. If people think Nature is their friend, then they sure don’t need an enemy.

Yes, and as you people a hundred years from now must know full well, and as your grandchildren will know even better: Nature is ruthless when it comes to matching the quantity of life in any given place at any given time to the quantity of nourishment available. So what have you and Nature done about overpopulation? Back here in 1988, we were seeing ourselves as a new sort of glacier, warm-blooded and clever, unstoppable, about to gobble up everything and then make love—and then double in size again.

On second thought, I am not sure I could bear to hear what you and Nature may have done about too many people for too small a food supply.

And here is a crazy idea I would like to try on you: Is it possible that we aimed rockets with hydrogen bomb warheads at each other, all set to go, in order to take our minds off the deeper problem—how cruelly Nature can be expected to treat us, Nature being Nature, in the by-and-by?

Now that we can discuss the mess we are in with some precision, I hope you have stopped choosing abysmally ignorant optimists for positions of leadership. They were useful only so long as nobody had a clue as to what was really going on—during the past seven million years or so. In my time they have been catastrophic as heads of sophisticated institutions with real work to do.

The sort of leaders we need now are not those who promise ultimate victory over Nature through perseverance in living as we do right now, but those with the courage and intelligence to present to the world what appears to be Nature’s stern but reasonable surrender terms:

  1. Reduce and stabilize your population.
  2. Stop poisoning the air, the water, and the topsoil.
  3. Stop preparing for war and start dealing with your real problems.
  4. Teach your kids, and yourselves, too, while you’re at it, how to inhabit a small planet without helping to kill it.
  5. Stop thinking science can fix anything if you give it a trillion dollars.
  6. Stop thinking your grandchildren will be OK no matter how wasteful or destructive you may be, since they can go to a nice new planet on a spaceship. That is really mean, and stupid.
  7. And so on. Or else.
Am I too pessimistic about life a hundred years from now? Maybe I have spent too much time with scientists and not enough time with speechwriters for politicians. For all I know, even bag ladies and bag gentlemen will have their own personal helicopters or rocket belts in A.D. 2088. Nobody will have to leave home to go to work or school, or even stop watching television. Everybody will sit around all day punching the keys of computer terminals connected to everything there is, and sip orange drink through straws like the astronauts.


Kurt Vonengut

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In 1914, Charlie Chaplin was on the cusp of superstardom. In February, he made his big-screen debut in Making a Living; two months later, his directorial debut, Twenty Minutes of Love, was also released. That year alone, he starred in 36 films for Keystone Studios, 19 of which he wrote and directed, and audiences were beginning to fall in love. In August, as Keystone’s boss, Mack Sennett, attempted to renew Chaplin’s contract and others in the industry tried to lure him away, Chaplin wrote a rare and excited letter to his brother, fellow actor, and eventual manager, Sydney, and brought him up to speed.

Four months later, Chaplin left Keystone for Essanay where he released 15 films, including, in April of 1915, The Tramp. Before long he was one of the highest paid actors in the world.

(Submitted by Angela Howe; Image: Charlie Chaplin in 1920, via National Portrait Gallery.)

Los Angeles Athletic Club,
Los Angeles, Calif.
Sunday Aug 9th

My Dear Sid,

You are doubtless realising who is addressing you. Yes. It really is your brother Chas. after all these years, but you must forgive me. The whole of my time is taken up with the movies. I write, direct, and play in them and believe me it keeps you busy. Well, Sid, I have made good. All the theatres feature my name in big letters i.e. ‘Chas Chaplin hear today’. I tell you in this country I am a big box office attraction. All the managers tell me that I have 50 letters a week from men and women from all parts of the world. It is wonderfull how popular I am in such a short time and next year I hope to make a bunch of dough. I have had all kinds of offers at 500 a week with 40% stock which would mean a salary of or about 1000 a week. Mr Marcus Lowe, the big theatre man over hear, has made me a proposition which is a certainty and wants me to form a comedy company and give me either a salary per week or 50% stock. This is a sure thing, any way, the whole matter is in the hands of my Lawyers, of course I shall finish out my contract with the Keyst. people, and if they come through with something better I shall stay where I am. This Marcus Lowe business is a sure I have a guarantee sale at all his theaters and then sell to the outside people. Anyway, I will let you know all about it in my next letter. He will finance the whole thing if it comes through it means thoullions to us. Mr Sennett is in New York. He said he would write to you and make you an offer. I told him you would do great for pictures of course he has not seen you and he is only going by what I say. He said he would give you 150 to start with. I told him you are getting that now and would not think of coming over hear for that amount. If you do consider it, don’t sign for any length of time, because I will want you with me when I start. I could get you 250 as easy as anything but of course you would have to sign a contract. It will be nice for you to come over for three months with the Keystone and then start for ourselves. You will hear from Sennet but don’t come for less than that understand? You will like it out hear it is a beautiful country and the fresh air is doing me the world of good. I have made a heap of good friends hear and go to all the partys ect. I stay at the best Club in the city where all the millionairs belong in fact I have a good sane, wholsome time. I am living well. I have my own valet, some class to me eh what? I am still saving my money and since I have been hear I have 4000 dollars in one bank, 1200 in another, 1500 in London not so bad for 25 and still going strong thank God. Sid, we will be millionaires before long. My health is better than it ever was and I am getting fatter. Well you must tell me how Mother is and don’t forget to write me before you sign any contract because there is another firm who will pay you 250. They wanted me and I told them about you, as I could not break my contract of course. Mr Sennett is a lovely man and we are great pals but business is business. Of course he does not know I am leaving or that I have had these offeres, so don’t say anything in case it gets back hear, you never know. I would not like to heart Sennet feelings he thinks the world of me. Now about that money for mother do you think it is safe for me to send you it while the war is on, or do you think it better for you to pay my share and then we will arrainge things later on. So long as I know the money will get there I will send it. Anyway tell me in your next letter what to do. I hope they don’t make you fight over there. This war is terrible. Well that about all the important news. I have just finished a six real picture with Marie Dressier the American star and myself. It cost 50,000 to put and I have hog the whole picture. It is the best thing I ever did. I must draw to a close now as I am getting hungry. Just this second my valet tells me I have friends to take me out Automobiling so am going to the beach to dine. Good night Sid, Love to Minnie.

Your loving brother


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Dear All,

With your help, the Letters of Note book is soon to have a sister called Lists of Note—something I’ve been itching to bring to life for almost as long as Letters of Note has been an obsession, and which I have been busy researching for two years, writing for many months. Just as Letters of Note is filled with interesting letters, Lists of Note will boast a fascinating array of lists created by a wide selection of people, reproduced in facsimile where possible. Check out the accompanying website for a taster.

The book will be beautiful and crafted by Here Design, the same talented bunch who worked their magic on Letters of Note, and it will be another satisfyingly hefty object boasting the same dimensions as its predecessor. It will contain 125 lists written through the centuries, from as early as the 26th Century BC, to as recent as a few years ago. While many will be written by everyday folk, there will hopefully be lists written by such people as:

  1. Albert Einstein
  2. Gandhi
  3. Debbie Harry
  4. Marilyn Monroe
  5. Anne Frank
  6. Nick Cave
  7. Galileo
  8. Harry Houdini
  9. Susan Sontag 
  10. Isaac Newton
  11. Leonardo da Vinci
  12. Julia Child
  13. Thomas Edison
  14. Sid Vicious
  15. Martin Luther King
…to name but 15. There will be to-do lists of the good, the bad and the ugly; centuries-old shopping lists penned by history’s greatest minds; lists of rules and advice for all manner of situations; lists of predictions, some accurate, others not so; an eye-opening list of slaves; charming lists of New Year’s resolutions; unique dictionaries; lists of murder suspects, and much, much more. It will be a list-based feast and I cannot wait to see it made.

As with Letters of Note, the book will be crowdfunded with the help of Unbound, a group of people who are more passionate about books than I thought possible and without whom Letters of Note would not have materialised quite so well. Head on over to the Unbound website to learn more about the process, watch me attempting to sell the concept on camera (I’m so sorry), and hopefully pledge. As always, there are different rewards available depending on the level at which you decide to pledge, from a signed copy of the limited special edition through to tickets to the launch party, lunch with me (again, I apologise in advance), and a magnificent deluxe slipcase edition of the book (the deluxe edition of Letters of Note was a sight to behold).

Should the project reach its funding target, this gorgeous book will be published and land on your doorstep at the end of 2014—that’s this year—WITHOUT FAIL. Producing Letters of Note was a steep learning curve; we now have a solid team in place and are light years ahead of our old selves. I really hope you feel excited enough to give your support; without it, the poor book will remain, unpublished, in my head.

If you have any questions, please get in touch by email via or on Twitter.

Thank you!


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On the morning of May 19th, 1902, a huge explosion ripped through Fraterville Coal Mine in Tennessee, its devastating power instantly killing most of the 216 miners who were below ground. For the 26 who survived the initial blast, a side passage of the mine proved to be a safe haven, but not for long—when rescuers eventually reached them, all had suffocated. Found next to a number of the those 26 bodies were letters to loved ones, one of which can be seen below. It was written by Jacob Vowell to Sarah Ellen, his beloved wife and mother to their 6 children, one of whom, 14-year-old Elbert, was by his side in the mine. (“Little Eddie” was a son they had lost previously.)

All but three of Fraterville’s adult men were killed that day; over a hundred women were instantly widowed; close to a thousand children lost their fathers. The Fraterville Mine disaster remains the worst of its kind in Tennessee’s history.

(Source: United Mine Workers of America; Image above: Jacob Vowell with his daughter, Lily, via.)



Ellen, darling, goodbye for us both. Elbert said the Lord has saved him. We are all praying for air to support us, but it is getting so bad without any air.

Ellen I want you to live right and come to heaven. Raise the children the best you can. Oh how I wish to be with you, goodbye. Bury me and Elbert in the same grave by little Eddie. Godbye Ellen, goodbye Lily, goodbye Jemmie, goodbye Horace. We are together. Is 25 minutes after two. There is a few of us alive yet.

Jake and Elbert

Oh God for one more breath. Ellen remember me as long as you live Goodbye darling.

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In December of 1882, while visiting Paris, distinguished psychologist William James received word that his father's ill-health had further deteriorated at the family home in the US. Almost immediately he travelled to England in a bid to return home, only to find that his brother, Henry, had already left his London home for New York. As he awaited further news, William wrote the following letter—a beautiful farewell that sadly arrived a day too late, and which was subsequently read aloud by Henry at their father's grave.

See also: William James’s letter of advice to his daughter, and his brother’s stunning letter to a depressed friend.

(Source: The Oxford Book of Letters; Image: William James, via Wikimedia.)

Bolton St.

Dec.14, 1882

Darling old father,

Two letters, one from my Alice last night, and one from Aunt Kate to Harry just now, have somewhat dispelled the mystery in which the telegrams left your condition; and although their news is several days earlier than the telegrams, I am free to suppose that the latter report only an aggravation of the symptoms the letters describe. It is far more agreeable to think of this than of some dreadful unknown and sudden malady.

We have been so long accustomed to the hypothesis of your being taken away from us, especially during the past ten months, that the thought that this may be your last illness conveys no very sudden shock. You are old enough, you’ve given your message to the world in many ways and will not be forgotten; you are here left alone, and on the other side, let us hope and pray, dear, dear old Mother is waiting for you to join her. If you go, it will not be an inharmonious thing. Only, if you are still in possession of your normal consciousness, I should like to see you once again before we part. I stayed here only in obedience to the last telegram, and am waiting now for Harry—who knows, the exact state of my mind, and who will know yours—to telegraph again what I shall do. Meanwhile, my blessed old Father, I scribble this line (which may reach you though I should come too late), just to tell you how full of the tenderest memories and feelings about you my heart has for the last few days been filled. In that mysterious gulf of the past into which the present soon will fall and go back and back, yours is still for me the central figure. All my intellectual life I derive from you; and though we have often seemed at odds in the expression thereof, I’m sure there is a harmony somewhere, and that our strivings will combine. What my debt to you is goes beyond all my power of estimating,—so early, so penetrating and so constant has been the influence. You need be in no anxiety about your literary remains. I will see them well taken care of, and that your words shall not suffer for being concealed. At Paris I heard that Milsand, whose name you may remember in the ‘Revue des Deux Mondes’ and elsewhere, was an admirer of the ‘Secret of Swedenborg’, and Hodgson told me your last book had deeply impressed him. So will it be; especially, I think, if a collection of extracts from your various writings were published, after the manner of the extracts from Carlyle, Ruskin, & Co. I have long thought such a volume would be the best monument to you.—As for us; we shall live on each in his way,—feeling somewhat unprotected, old as we are, for the absence of the parental bosoms as a refuge, but holding fast together in that common sacred memory. We will stand by each other and by Alice, try to transmit the torch in our offspring as you did in us, and when the time comes for being gathered in, I pray we may, if not all, some at least, be as ripe as you. As for myself, I know what trouble I’ve given you at various times through my peculiarities; and as my own boys grow up, I shall learn more and more of the kind of trial you had to overcome in superintending the development of a creature different from yourself, for whom you felt responsible. I say this merely to show how my sympathy with you is likely to grow much livelier, rather than to fade—and not for the sake of regrets.—As for the other side, and Mother, and our all possibly meeting, I can’t say anything. More than ever at this moment do I feel that if that were true, all would be solved and justified. And it comes strangely over me in bidding you good-bye how a life is but a day and expresses mainly but a single note. It is so much like the act of bidding an ordinary good-night. Good-night, my sacred old Father! If I don’t see you again—Farewell! a blessed farewell!


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