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Two writers reveal their personalities through letter writing.

There is, first, the difference in modalities. Paul Auster types his letters on his old-fashioned typewriter and sends them off, presumably with stamps duly affixed, by snail mail. J.M. Coetzee composes his on his computer and faxes them — or at a crunch, emails them to Auster's wife, the novelist Siri Hustvedt, so that she can print them out. So is accumulated enough correspondence for this remarkable book, Here and Now. And given Auster's habit of writing and sending letters without the assistance of computers and the internet, you have to wonder how his idiosyncrasy (though he betrays no inclination to see it like that) brought a thoughtfulness to the correspondence by slowing it down. This is not a conversation that could have been conducted on email.

Auster is the Brooklyn-based American author of such outstanding novels as The Brooklyn Follies and The New York Trilogy. Coetzee, the South African novelist now based in Australia, is the Nobel prize-winning author who is not only the only person writing in English to match Philip Roth's body of work in its intensity and importance, but is also, for most of his readers, comparatively fierce in maintaining his privacy. This volume of three years' worth of letters (July 2008-August 2011) is, therefore, a rare and valuable look into the working and distractions of two favourites.

For long stretches, that conversation is on sport. Both are avid viewers/spectators and it is as much a delight as it is an instruction to see how seriously they take the games they watch. What is it that draws us to sports, Coetzee ventures: "Identifying the desire to be held in esteem as one of the primary forces in the soul yields valuable insights, it seems to me. For instance, it suggests why athletic sports — activities with no parallel in the rest of creation— are so important to human beings, men in particular." It could be, he says, part of the human need to be bound by being held in "mutual admiration".

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