Cultural changes often get measured in small, quirky ways. A statistic, a poll, a comment, a tiny headline buried deep in a newspaper can produce a "Click!" of recognition. "Aha!" an observer thinks. "So that's what's happening."
The latest "Aha!" comes from a survey of 2000 16-to-19-year-olds in Britain. It finds that a third of teenage girls have never written a letter to friends or family. Among boys, more than half never have.
A poll of American teenagers would probably turn up similar results. Perhaps never before has a generation produced so few letter writers. "Farewell, paper and post offices," the teens appear to be saying. "Long live e-mail, voicemail, and text messages - all the wonders of electronic communication." Three-quarters of teens thought they wouldn't be able to cope if they didn't have their cellphone for a whole day.
Yet just when a young generation enamored of technology might be tempted to think that putting pen to paper is hopelessly quaint, they're getting scattered reminders that the written word remains important.
High school students who take the SAT must now write a short essay. The exercise measures students' ability to organize and express ideas clearly and to follow the conventions of standard written English.
On a far more casual level, some summer camps are still doing their part to preserve the tradition of writing. E-mail messages to parents are fine, they tell their young charges. But once a week, campers must write a real letter home, the snail-mail way. That letter is often the ticket to the Sunday evening meal in the dining hall.
In an age when mailboxes bulge with a daily barrage of junk mail, the sight of a hand-addressed envelope with a first-class stamp is cause for rejoicing. And perhaps who better to engage the youngest generation in occasional written exchanges than grandparents? Letters can connect generations and strengthen family bonds. They also offer an easy way to give children experience in writing. Even a casual letter involves organizing thoughts and ideas.
A friend of mine who loves the written word likes to keep in casual touch with far-flung grandchildren. Sometimes, as a thoroughly modern grandmother, she taps out e-mail letters. Other times she sends missives the old-fashioned way, enjoying the ritual of sealing an envelope and affixing a stamp. Either way, her letters are warm and engaging. She might compliment a child on an academic or athletic achievement. She might mention something she and their grandfather did recently. She might even share a family story.
Although she cherishes - and saves - all replies, she doesn't count on them. Students, she knows, have busy lives.
In the same way that books will never disappear because of computers, letters - which my friend calls "tiny, tiny books" - will always exist, too. She thinks there just might be "something innate that causes us to want to hold a letter in our hands."
Passing along that pleasure to a generation more accustomed to clutching cellphones and iPods than letters and pens can be rewarding. A letter, however brief, is an exercise in thoughtfulness, carrying the silent message, "I'm thinking of you." And unlike the ephemeral nature of e-mail and text messages, letters give words a measure of permanence.
Still, even letter writing has its supposed perils, if you believe Sydney Smith, a 19th-century English essayist and wit. Writing in a letter to a friend, he complained that "it is impossible to keep [correspondences] up."
Maybe so. But that's no reason not to start. Grandparents, unite. Pick up your pens and write. Who knows? A letter to a grandchild across the miles, or even across town, just might be the start of something grand for both generations.