Investigating the Letter, Part One

Write a Letter

My wife occasionally receives a handwritten letter delivered by the postal service. It is a rare event; I never receive such a letter. I get plenty of emails, but few seem carefully written or constructed like letters used to be; rather, they are expedient means by which to communicate or to connect. Letter writing is becoming a lost art, along with slow reading and careful composition. These are additional losses in the digital era, and we ought to be concerned. When I was growing up, we were taught how to write a letter, and most of us had a pen pal or two. We were also taught cursive, something that is not encouraged today, and that is also being lost. Rather, get those children in front of a keyboard and screen. We need to master these latter skills, to be digitally literate — or so the argument goes.

But as we become digitally literate are we also becoming illiterate in other ways? Some have argued (Nicholas Carr, for example) that our basic cognitive abilities are deteriorating as we rely too much on computers. But it is a deeper concern than what even this suggests. The loss of our tactile senses negatively effect our sense of community and connecting with each other in practical ways. An email, tweet, or other digital expression falls far shorter in conveying emotion or other feelings. Even a typed letter with a signature is more expressive than email message, even if it is slower and less effective in conveying some particular content. This is why individuals collect letters, writing about letters continues to increase, and scholarship about letter writing seems robust.

Writing a letter seems to be one means of protesting against the sterility of the digital era we live in. Primers on letter writing date back to antiquity, and they have been particularly consistent in appearance in our modern age. Now we are seeing primers about letter writing as a means of producing something that is not virtual and to engage in process that is not artificial. The accompanying growth in the sales of nicely bound journals and fine stationary suggest quite a movement against writing everything in digital form. Some might continue to write checks rather than banking online for reasons of personal security, but others do this because they prefer the look, feel, and personal expressions of original checks. Some even learn calligraphic techniques in order to dress up their written documents. John O’Connell writes, for example, that the “reason we write letters is the main reason we write anything: to convert the chaos of our lives into solid, time-locked narrative”; John O’Connell, For the love of Letters: The Joy of Slow Communication (New York: Marble Arch Press, 2012), p. 22. He even suggests that the physical act of handwriting is a means to marking oneself in time and place: “Because it is unique to a person, handwriting is a physical token of identity and authenticity. This is why signatures on legal documents and works of art have historically been so important: they represent the presence of a particular person in a particular place at a particular moment” (p. 173).

The public’s fascination with letters is quite intense. A visit to any bookstore will uncover books of edited letters, typified by Andrew Carroll’s War Letters and subsequent volumes, as well as guides on how to write letters for every social and business occasion. Documentary editions of letters of famous and infamous individuals also populate the shelves; my favorite example of this genre is Lester Cappon’s edition of the correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, a work that has been in print for more than five decades. Deeper digging into scholarly studies by historians, literature professors, anthropologists, and others often reveal a heavy reliance on archival letters. Figures from every period, from the ancient world to the modern era, have opened their souls in letters to friends, spouses, relatives, and colleagues — and many of these have survived, often protected because of their historical, symbolic, and sentimental values.

The tradition of letter writing brings with it a kind of revolutionary fervor, both in tone and intent. We often use letters to declare our position because they are so expressive and, as well, can be so personal. This explains why there has been a return to personal letter writing, meaning using pen and paper, as a kind of protest against the prevalent forms of digital communications. Think about it. Turn off the computer. Leave it off. Go to a stationary store and select some fine paper. Pick up a new fountain pen (or reactivate an old one) and some specialty ink; I advocate a fountain pen of the sense of the smooth flow you can achieve with it. Practice a bit with your cursive writing (it may take a while, since you have spent years writing on a keyboard) to get the feel of such writing again. Now you are ready to try composing a letter, one in which pen, paper, and ink all blend together to enable you to express yourself without having to resort to tricks (such as emoticons) needed when you write an email or send a tweet.

Now pick an addressee and a topic for your first letter. If you are having difficulty trying to come up with an idea, reflect on the various occasions you buy greeting cards. Greeting cards have become a shorthand approach to writing letters. In the past you would write letters of sympathy, condolence, congratulations, holiday greetings, and so forth, but now you go shop for these cards. Some people even stockpile quantities of cards for these life inevitabilities, as my mother-in-law used to do (lingering for hours to read the sentiments expressed by the cards). Indeed, if you read the messages in greeting cards you should be inspired to write letters, confident about how much better you can do in communicating in difficult times and about difficult issues.

Writing letters is also an excellent means by which to mark your place in time. They are more likely, given their rarity, to be saved by a family member or the recipient. E-mail messages are generally seen as transient communications and, even in corporations and governments, when they are saved they are likely to be the subject of legal procedures (and, given the frequency of cases where someone has deliberately destroyed messages that should be preserved, this is an uphill struggle). Writing a letter in the traditional fashion is not only an enjoyable experience, where you get to enjoy the touch of paper and the smoothness of writing with paper and ink, it is a bold statement about who you are and why you are here. So, write a letter; you can always go back to the convenience and expediency of e-mail and other digital means of communication whenever you need to get stuff done.


One thought on “Investigating the Letter, Part One

  1. Some aspects of this blog entry stood out to me, not necessarily observations on letter writing but on our digital world in general. I absolutely agree that “basic cognitive abilities are deteriorating as we rely too much on computers.” I’ve never been good at math, but I’ve noticed that even fundamental mental math takes me longer to compute in my head than many others. My reliance on the calculator has poisoned me in this way.

    “Writing a letter seems to be one means of protesting against the sterility of the digital era we live in.” I have quirky ways by which I choose to protest the digital era. I keep a paper journal rather than a blog. I buy and read paper books and magazines; I do not own an e-reader. I’m perhaps one of the last holdouts in getting a smart phone as well, even though I’ve thought about it lately because of how far prices have fallen. I prefer to receive hard copies of archival journals rather than “going green” with a digital copy. The one digital edition I agreed to, the MAC Newsletter, I never read anymore because I need to make the extra effort to log into the website to acquire it, and when at work or home the thought doesn’t occur to me. But when I received the newsletter in the mail I read it because I was aware of its presence on the counter top.

    All of this stems from my concern that we spend too much time enslaved to screens. When I come home from work, I do not want to be looking at yet another screen. I feel no need to be connected to email, news, or entertainment 24/7. I’ve seen weekend getaway resorts advertise being “off the grid,” as if people are powerless to put down the smartphone outside these designated spaces. It’s sad that this is what we’ve come to. And I’m a part of the Millennial generation that is supposed to unquestionably embrace whatever Apple throws at us. At age 30, I already find myself looking at kids 10-15 years younger than me and thinking “In my day we….” Isn’t that school of thought reserved for when I’m 50? But I digress.

    So yes, write letters. Read text from paper. Take a moment to enjoy the world around you and not the world as shown on the screen.


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