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Letters to a Nation by David Johnston

Reviewed by Ranga Rajah

Writing letters is a very personal and intimate way of expressing self. They are a way to communicate innermost feelings and thoughts.

This book reminds me of letters written by India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to his daughter Indira Gandhi, (who also was Prime Minister of India) from prison. He mostly wrote all that he wanted to share with his young daughter.

Canada's Governor General David Johnston has given a whole new meaning to this craft. It is more like a tradition he has formed, to bond, connect and express his feelings, experiences while praising and honoring works of people he admires, been a part or supports.

Though this book is a compilation of letters, the topics covered are vast. Johnston manages to communicate the essence of the each topic very effectively.

These letters offer profound insights into the individuals he has addressed. Or the impact that particular meeting or event has had on him. For example his letter to Jacline Nyman, president and chief executive of United Way is simple yet deep. In just about a page Johnston manages to share about how he received a lesson in why many youngsters in Montreal were unable to engage their minds because of an empty stomach.

The wrong-way guy letter to Kevin Vickers is another endearing expression. Johnston talks about how men and women in service rush toward danger and get killed while we head the other way to safety.

The simplicity with which he connects and the easy and free flow of words makes the whole book feel as if Johnston is having those conversations with you. Or you are witnessing that conversation between him and the receiver of that letter.

The highlight of this book is the technique and approach to convey opinions and insights on serious topics with the ease of a parent talking to children.

It is very easy to get preachy and lose objectivity while dealing with issues like hunger, education, leadership, etc. The strength of this book is not walking that route. A striking example of this is a letter to all emerging young leaders. It can be beautifully summed up in one sentence, ‘manage negatives and work with the positive.’

This book of letters comes at a time when we are getting used to expressing ourselves in 140 characters or just posting a picture and a caption or even using emoticons to express ourselves.

This book is a valuable reminder that we should try expressing ourselves in more than 140 characters whenever possible. It is also a reminder that the art of writing letters is not completely dead.

Letters to a Nation is published by Signal McClelland & Stewart.

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