Reading the letters of others has long been a source of public fascination and there are many published collections of these exchanges: Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville West, Rimbaud and Verlaine, Anais Nin and Henry Miller, to name a few. In 2010, the Royal Academy in London held an exhibition of Vincent Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo alongside Vincent’s paintings. And Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, the letter he wrote to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas during his incarceration in Reading Gaol, has been staged at the National Theatre. The appreciation of letters is also now having something of a renaissance thanks to the website Letters of Note; “an attempt to gather and sort fascinating letters, postcards, telegrams, faxes, and memos” which currently has over 185,000 Twitter followers.
This window into the personal lives of public figures holds an obvious attraction. But in the Digital Age, can letter writing go beyond voyeurism to practical purpose? Or has it become nothing more than a retro foible?
Earlier this year Simon & Schuster published a book extolling the virtues of letters; Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing by Nina Sankovitch. In June she was interviewed on Radio Boston and gave her views on what sets letters apart. She talks about how the privacy of letters emboldens the writer to freedom of expression and how the time taken to write a letter is in itself a gift. For Sankovitch the benefits of letter writing are both personal; she compares the qualities of a good letter – time taken, privacy, intimacy – to the qualities of a good relationship, and historical; with even the most mundane letter providing a snapshot of a specific era.
She sees letters as the antidote to today’s society of instant gratification and expresses concern that as children are no longer learning handwriting in school, they cannot read cursive writing and therefore huge swathes of historical artefacts are becoming lost to them. Thinking practically, the vast majority of these children will not need to decipher such relics, as there will already have been scholars or historians to do this for them. It is an interesting idea, however, that as and when new discoveries are made of items that have been handwritten, even as recently as the twentieth century, that historians a hundred years from now may be at a loss to decrypt them.
What is unique to letters is the physicality. As Sankovitch points out, there is something special about knowing that the writer has selected certain paper or a specific pen. That you are now holding the very thing that they wrote to you on, rather than a copy of it, conjured with pixels. Perhaps their handwriting is familiar to you and just seeing that on the envelope holds a meaning. Even now I can see my mum’s distinctive curly writing on envelopes and postcards, turning up frequently at any one of the fifteen different addresses I’ve held since leaving home eight years ago. It takes me straight back to my first address and a thousand memories of her.
What I would query, however, is the distinction between the importance of the content of a letter and the content of digital forms of communication, such as email. There is a widely held view that email is impersonal and utilised purely for speed and efficiency. And yes, often this is true – but not always. When I write to a friend from home via email, I don’t put any less effort or content – any less of myself – into it than I would with a letter. In fact I probably write more seeing as typing is, for most of my generation, faster than handwriting.
Increasingly, the slow pace of letters cannot be denied, not just in writing, but in delivery. As letter writing dwindles, so too does the efficiency of mail delivery due to its decreased income. But with a less efficient post office, comes fewer uses for letters and on and on into a future without postmen. Here in Australia, post is delivered only five days a week (compared to six in the UK) but due to plummeting budgets Australia Post are currently campaigning to reduce this even further to only three days a week.
Consequently, in the same way older generations are suspicious of technology, my generation is mistrustful of post. If you don’t hear back from the recipient, you cannot confirm that they have received the letter at all (without resorting to more expensive postal methods).
I only have one friend with whom I regularly exchange letters; a friend in London who first wrote to me in order to show off the typewriter she’d just bought. I repaid this retro display of communicative affection with a longhand response and we haven’t stopped since. I very much look forward to receiving her letters and really value our communicating in this way, but the form itself is not without issue. I have, on more than one occasion, emailed her to check that she received my letter – only one step removed from texting to see if your carrier pigeon arrived safely.
I discovered recently, when reading Here & Now: Letters, 2008-2011 a collection of letters between authors Paul Auster and JM Coetzee, that it is not just me being affected by the problems of letter writing. The weeks that pass between communications mean that a response can become irrelevant; either because an event has passed, the initiator of a topic has lost their verve for it or even just because the writer has forgotten what they have said and so cannot understand the response. This last problem is the one that strikes me most frequently. In my most recent letter from my friend, she praised an idea I had shared with her for something I was writing, but referred to it only as ‘the boyfriend idea’. I now have no idea what this was and am left to only imagine the surely Booker Prize winning gem that has been lost to me forever.
Coetzee and Auster find their way around this by regurgitating the question or point before proffering their response. A device that makes for sluggish reading and surely detracts from the enjoyment of the writing as well.
The content of their letters is wide ranging – covering everything from writing processes to politics, baseball to the Israeli-Palestine conflict, the credit crunch to contemporary perceptions of incest. What I find puzzling, however, is that in all the discussions between these literary heavyweights, not once does the topic of their medium come up. The closest they come is a brief discussion of the effects of e-readers on publication and readership. But surely a serious engagement in letter writing in the twenty-first century without an element of self reflection is nothing short of disingenuous?[i] Particularly considering that Coetzee resorts to fax intermittently throughout and even emails when time is of the essence.[ii]
There is not yet, to the best of my knowledge, a published collection of email correspondence between well-known artists – but I have no doubt that there will be. The closest I have come to glimpsing the private nature of an email not meant for you, is Miranda July’s[iii] project We Think Alone, in which a group of unconnected public figures (including Lena Dunham and Kirsten Dunst) submitted an email they had recently sent containing a certain topic or phrase, chosen by July. The collected emails for each topic were then compiled and sent to anyone who cared to sign up to the mailing list. Content requested included money, Barack Obama, an apology, problems with your computer and a picture of something you want. These snippets of conversation held no less fascination for me, regardless of the technology involved.
Would I value the letters from my friend in London any less if they were sent by email? Absolutely not. There is an old world sense of magic to communicating like this and email does not contain the same excitement of receipt, but that is counterbalanced or even outweighed by the fact that I would likely hear from her more often and in more detail, were we not relying on the post.
I agree that letter writing is a dying art; that most likely our children’s children will not know the joy of getting a stamped and post-marked communiqué through the door. But do I think this will stop them communicating? Of course not. With the prevalence of online communications, there have never been more ways to express yourself to those around you. And while many of these forums are public, the privacy of emails, texts, Facebook messages etcetera remains and the new technologies of today will become the letters of tomorrow.
I think in the future, our handwriting may well be atrocious, but our articulation will continue to evolve in ways we cannot yet imagine.
[i] Although, as the Guardian’s John Crace and Tim Adams both suggest, this exchange could surely only ever have been intended for publication and therefore the sincerity of the whole enterprise may be debatable.
[ii] Albeit via Auster’s wife Siri Hustvedt’s email address. Auster himself does not have an email address or, it is later revealed, a mobile phone.
[iii] In fact, Miranda July seems to be the market leader when it comes to famous people conducting communicative experiments. As further demonstrated by her latest project Somebody; an app that allows you to send a message by finding the person who has the app closest to the intended recipient and allowing this stranger to deliver your message verbally.
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