What We Lost When We Stopped Writing Letters

With the days of snail mail far behind us, we reflect on what was lost when we gave up writing letters for cyber-communication.

“Letters have the power to grant us a larger life,” writes Simon Garfield in his new book, “To The Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing.”

Garfield’s book examines the long life of letter writing throughout history, taking numerous detours to explore topics such as the proper way to conduct the saw-the-woman-in-half trick, and why Jane Austen’s correspondence is so utterly dull.

But the crux of Garfield’s book rests on the questions surrounding how written letters affected the world and what we have lost as letters have been replaced by email, texting, and Twitter.

This probably isn’t something you’ve spent a lot of time considering. If you’re like me, you didn’t write many letters in the first place, and when email came along, well, it never occurred to you that you were giving anything up. But if we take a moment to ponder how the world changed, we find a few significant differences:

The History

People kept letters. No one really saves emails.

It’s hard to explain exactly why. There’s something ephemeral about an email, something inherent in the technology. How often has it occurred to you to save an email that isn’t business related? How often have you printed an email and placed it lovingly in a box to be brought out and treasured again and again?

That’s what I thought.

My mom still has letters from her youth, but me? No, sir. When my generation becomes geriatric, we won’t have any letters to pass down to our kids and our grandchildren. No love letters. No postcards from around the globe (even passport stamps are becoming extinct).

I’m afraid what my children will be left with is little more than my Facebook timeline, a medium that shrinks a lifetime of letter writing down to a few disconnected LOLs and LMAOs.

The Community

People wrote letters to let others know what was going on in their lives. But there was a tacit understanding that letters were a two-way street. I tell you about my life, then I ask about yours. Letters were conversation on paper.

It’s true that we can connect with people online. Beyond email we have Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. A cornucopia of communication. But how many of these mediums are two-way streets? Sure, they can be. But are they?

One of the most disappointing elements of social media is that it is almost exclusively a platform for self-promotion. Give and take has been reduced to liking someone else’s post and then throwing up yet another selfie. Real communication rarely, if ever, occurs.

When communication withers, community suffers. Letters weren’t necessarily the glue holding the world together, but they were important. They reminded you that there were people in the world who cared about your life enough to sit and put pen to paper. To stuff an envelope. To lick a stamp even. Who licks a stamp for you now?

Literacy

One of the most surprising things about reading the letters of everyday people who lived long ago is the high level of literacy they display. But why is that surprising?

Probably because our own level of literacy seems so remarkably low by comparison. Embracing new technologies has left us with little to no practice in everyday literary arts. And somehow, emails haven’t filled the void.

Most emails I read, even from literate people, lack structure, basic syntax, and general good grammar. Email, as a medium, seems so informal, like wearing your pajamas to a work on Fridays. There just isn’t the need to impress. Social media is the same, only worse — like coming to work in just a bathrobe.

Letters, for whatever reason, just seem more formal. Don’t take my word for it. Get out a pen and some paper. Scrawl “Dear Whoever” at the top and start writing. I bet you notice the difference right away. You start weighing out your sentences. You hem and haw. You wonder about spelling, about just where that comma goes.

When was the last time you wrote OMG LOL on a piece of actual paper?

What to Do in A Letter-less World

Letter writing isn’t coming back into vogue. Pining for the old days isn’t going to help anyone. But there are a few things you can do to keep the old spirit alive.

International Pen Friends (IPF) offers a paid pen pal service. Most pen pal services are free, but IPF starts with a detailed questionnaire with the design of matching you with a pen pal suited to you and your interests. They’ve been around since 1967, so they’re doing something right.

The Rumpus offers a service called “Letters in the Mail.” You pay a small monthly fee and twice a month you get a letter in the mail written by novelists, short story writers, and others who have offered to be a part of the program. Writers taking part include Stephen Elliot, Rick Moody, Dave Eggers, Janet Fitch, Nick Flynn, and Cheryl Strayed. There is also a “Letters for Kids” service. Some authors even include their return addresses, so you can keep the correspondence going.

Sources:

Garfield, S. (2014). To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing. New York: Gotham.

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