A year or two ago I saw some books left out in a box on a Brooklyn stoop for anyone to take. And from that box, I picked up the book Letters from a Nut by Ted L. Nancy (with introduction by Jerry Seinfeld) and added it to my LLM reading library.
The book is–and stay with me here–a series of actual letters written by Nancy to various businesses that express absurd problems or concerns with the business’ products or services, and the reply letters from said businesses attempting to grapple in a serious manner with said absurd problems or concerns. (Here’s a link to Jerry Seinfeld explaining it and reading from it on the Jay Leno Show.)
In other words, from my legal English perspective, it’s a linguistic corpus of business letters–hundreds of actual business letters written by real people using real-life business letter language, punctuation and formatting. None of that phony sample business letter template from Mr. Jones to Ms. Smith at ABC Co. on 123 Main St. that you get when you Google “sample business letter.”
On top of that, it’s very funny and engaging to read. In one instance, Mr. Nancy writes a letter to the Nordstrom’s department store company explaining that one of the mannequins at the store he recently visited bears a striking resemblance to a deceased neighbor. He then inquires as to Nordstrom’s policy regarding the selling of their mannequins as he would like to buy one and present it as a gift to the family of his neighbor. This results in three earnestly written response letters from Nordstrom’s, including one from the president of the company, Bruce Nordstrom.
I’ve kept it on my reading library shelf and occasionally shown it to LLM students as a source of realia for getting a sense of how to format and write business letters. Should you use “Dear” in a business letter? Should I indent? Use a colon or a comma? Well, let’s look at a bunch of these letters written by actual businesses and see how many of do these things. If most of them are doing it, then it’s probably an acceptable convention.
But the other day, while working on writing strategies for the MPT (Multi-state Performance Test–one of the 3 sections of the Universal Bar Exam) with some LLM students preparing for this coming July 2019 bar exam, we were reviewing and collaboratively deconstructing some of the different possible writing genres that could appear. Several of these genres involve business letters such as client letters and demand letters.
For American bar exam takers, the MPT is considered relatively easy because there is not actual law that is required to be learned or memorized. Everything you need is provided in the case file–usually some instructions and background info, a few cases, maybe a statute, and some facts in the form of a letter or deposition. However, for LLM students the MPT can be very intimidating because they are not familiar with the appropriate tone and language conventions for some of these genres.
So after class, I showed the students Letters from a Nut. I suggested that reading a bunch of these letters might be a good way to get a feel for the tone and language conventions common in business-style letter writing. And then, after explaining the premise (which they struggled to wrap their heads around initially), I proceeded to read a few of the letters out loud to them while they read along. And they found them to be both funny and relatively easy to understand, i.e., comprehensible input.
I realized this would be a great resource for extensive reading with the aim of developing a native English speaker’s feel for what looks and sounds right in an American business letter. And it fits with the notion I constantly preach to my students that, to learn how to write a certain style and develop a sense of the language and discourse that sounds right, you have to read a lot of the kind of writing you want to produce. Yet it is often hard to find the kind of texts that have the kind of writing that students (and especially LLM students) should reasonably be able to produce, because publishers don’t generally make money by publishing writing written by average students. They publish things by professional writers. Which is why a book like Letters to a Nut is so potentially valuable. And also a lesson to myself (and perhaps to others) to always be on the lookout for texts that inadvertently can serve as valuable resources to LLM students.
Now, I just have to figure out how to get a hold of a few more copies of Letters from a Nut to keep in my LLM reading library. Speaking of which, here are a few recent pics of the LLM reading library I’ve set up in the Office of Graduate Studies at St. John’s Law School: