Return of the prodigal letter writer

Until not so many years ago I was a dedicated writer of letters of the pen-and-paper variety. Atop my desk sat a shoebox with tightly packed correspondence from friends, family, and acquaintances near and far. Our exchanges of news and good wishes were an almost organic act of mutual interest, and I longed for the daily mail with the eager anticipation of an astronomer awaiting a celestial event.

But like some ancient civilization swallowed up by the sea, the culture of the hand-written stamped letter seemed to vanish almost overnight, replaced by the clipped sere dispatches known as e-mail.

Don't get me wrong, e-mail is empowering in many ways. It's speedy and efficient, and one can "attach" all manner of documents and references and graphics to a message, like riders on a congressional bill.

Still, I wince whenever I hear someone celebrate e-mail as a "revival" of the written word, a "leap" in the evolution of human communication, or - gasp - "a way to get kids writing again."

I'm not sure that e-mail is any of these things, and at the risk of sounding like a dinosaur, I long, with all my heart, for the sensation of applying wet ink to quality paper in the hope of achieving a response in kind. (I once sent a letter to a friend, only to receive an e-mail in return. I felt cheated.)

When I lament the demise of real letter-writing, I am admitting to missing many things: the subtle thrill of wondering about the contents of a newly delivered envelope, the artistry of the postage stamp, the feel of the writing paper and the minor drama of its unfolding, and the knowledge that the letter was physically transported by human hands from point to point.

Not least, I miss the distinctive style of the sender's handwriting.

When I was in grammar school, handwriting was a subject taught with the same seriousness of purpose as math and history. And with good reason: If one went to the trouble of writing a letter and then sending it far away, one wanted to ensure that the message was legible so that it would be received loud and clear at the other end. This must have been especially important in the days before the telephone and telegraph, when writing something down was the only means of communicating over distance. Perhaps this is why we admire the elegant script of letters written 100 or more years ago, even by people with minimal educations.

What I am saying here is that letters - because of their combination of raw materials, style of handwriting, and, of course, informational content - are as unique as their senders.

By contrast, e-mail represents the ultimate in homogenization. Superficially, all e-mail looks alike, and one is denied the experience of being able to actually touch it because, in the physical sense, it doesn't really exist, being nothing more than electrons shot from a cathode ray tube.

Perhaps this is why e-mail is generally uninteresting. It is highly practical, a fast way to communicate facts ("I'm arriving at noon tomorrow") or express outrage ("If he's elected I'm moving to Canada!"); but I think it is the rare individual who labors over the creation of an e-mail message, in the belief that, like a letter, it will be retained and cherished for the ages.

Rather, the basic assumption seems to be that since e-mail is not real, and any message one writes is fated, sooner or later, for the "delete" key of the recipient, it's not worth an investment of much in the way of thought, sentiment, or rumination. Hence the telegraphic nature of most e-mail messages. (I can't even remember the last time someone used the salutation "Dear" in an e-mail to me.)

As a last thought, I wonder what will become of the phenomenon - so fascinating throughout history - of "collected letters" of famous people?

I think of the tender missives between John Adams and his wife during the birth pangs of the American republic; the plaintive letters Harry Truman wrote to Bess as he pined for her from the battlefields of World War I; the massive correspondence of H.L. Mencken as he took issue with the "frauds" he saw all around him (Mencken wrote letters every morning, by the dozens). There's something transporting about reading such well-crafted and heartfelt documents that gives us glimpses into another era.

Perhaps it is too soon to know if e-mail will achieve the same status; to date it seems to be used only as evidence in criminal prosecutions.

I recently received a letter from a friend I hadn't heard from in almost 20 years. It came from clear across the country. The envelope was off-white, the stamp bore a portrait of Ogden Nash, and the paper was of a fine grade, with flecks of pulp, smelling faintly of flowers. I unfolded the first of five pages and read her opening line: "I think I am the last person who actually writes letters anymore."

Without reading another word I seized both pen and paper and began to write, "Take heart. You are not alone." And then I dug out my shoebox, to take up the battle anew.

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