Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Personal Letter: An Endangered Species

I love technology--technology makes things convenient--but I wish technology had left the personal letter alone. Although it’s a long time since I used a pen and paper to write to anyone, I am beginning to lament the personal letter’s passing.

I used to write letters to friends and family, but not any more. Like the telegraph before it, the personal letter is passing into history, replaced by email and other instant forms of communication. Sacrificed at the altar of technology, it is no match for the speed, brevity, and ease of communication that is email.

It’s a long time since I looked in my mail box and saw anything among the bills, junk mail, and discount coupons that I wanted to rush to open. You might not get excited about receiving an email, but receiving a personal letter--envelope and all--is exciting. Go on, I dare you to admit it!

So what does letter writing reveal that email doesn’t? Certainly part of it is being able to use a good pen. Using some nice stationery and different color inks add a little flair that email cannot match. Then there’s the writing itself. Words—animated by a breath of life and written by hand have the power to impress. Visually sensual, they create a favorable impression on the mind, adding to the overall aesthetic. It might be easier to say the same thing by email, but it’s that personal touch that makes all the difference.

A personal letter conveys a sense of humanity--pen and ink form a connection that electronic communication cannot match. Writing a letter is a different process--it lets you know that the author took the time to think the words through.

I like email for its ease of use, and having got this far down the screen, the Delete, Cut and Paste, and Spellcheck features have become my friends. Email is certainly instantaneous; it is at the same time impersonal.

In another generation perhaps letter writing will be viewed as an archaic form of communicating from a past time. If that’s so, its impact on history cannot be overstated. Consider: The historical personal correspondence of presidents, kings and queens, prime ministers, and other historical figures just wouldn’t be the same with email.

One of my friends still sends me personal notes in the mail on the occasion of a holiday, departure on a trip, or arrival back from one. I love to receive them.

Nostalgia aside, time marches on and I fully intend to march with it; however, I have resolved to treat myself to a good pen, and the next time I want to tell a friend or relative more than "Hello-How are you?-What are you doing tonight?" I’ll write them a letter. I might not get back into the habit on a regular basis, but I am resolved not to lose touch with it.

Now, just how much does a stamp cost these days?


Anonymous said...

I agree, Chris. I do relate from the sentimental angle - I've saved various handwritten love letters and letters from family members over the years, but I've never felt the urge to permanently hang on to an email (neither printed nor in electronic form).

But I think the biggest loss is in the intellectual realm. There's no modern equivilant of the written correspondences of previous eras, in which well thought out, reasoned arguments were passed back and forth between correspondents over periods of months or even years. I don't think we'll see much if any of this going forward and I think our collective intellectual development suffers as a result.


Tee said...

I agree with your Chris. I miss getting real letters. I have so many I have saved and reread. I can save emails on my computer and print them, but they are not at all the same to me. I treasure the hand written notes I receive in Christmas cards and other correspondence.

I am an old person in this too. I make the kids write, not type, handwritten thank you notes when they receive gifts. Sending an email is just not the same.

Anonymous said...

I identify well with your comments per the excitement of opening my mailbox and seeing a hand-addressed letter and a return address I recognize. However, I must be one of those rare individuals who takes delight in selecting the right stationary/paper, writing a letter by hand, choosing the right stamp (yes I have more than the Forever Liberty Bell stamps), addressing the envelope, and posting it.

Today on Labor Day I wrote three letters addressed to Minneapolis, Tampa, and Wilmington Del. Yet, all three recipients may also get an email or text from me this month. There are some of us who fully communicate in the written word and electronically. Hope your blog surfaces more of them.

allinaword said...

DMR: Your comments about keeping love letters and letters from family resonate with me as I have kept many of my own.

I, too, lament the passing of the letter as a means of exchanging thoughts and ideas, and although the medium through which such exchanges occur has shifted, I don't necessarily think it has suffered.

allinaword said...

Tee: It's good to read that you make the kids write hand-written thank you notes after receiving a gift. It's so much more personal. And I am sure the recipent appreciates it, too!

allinaword said...

Anonymous Letter Writer: I suspect that the attention you pay to the sender’s choice of stationary and paper reveals a discerning eye. Combining email and letters seems like a good mix.