The Lost Art of Letter-Writing


       From Cicero to John Keats, Virginia Woolf to Jack Kerouac - how would these masters of the letter have taken to the inbox and junk folder? Would they have withheld their jewels of prose behind passwords and defunct operating systems? Would they have been cloud savvy enough to pass on their attachments and YouTube links to future generations?

       These aren't frivolous questions. We have grown used to the fact that we no longer write letters as we used to, but I'm not sure we have fully contemplated what this means to future generations. We love email, as we should - for its brilliant speed, its global reach, its free transmission of vast amounts of information. Its terrors (the cc'ed indiscretions, the "always on" culture, the Big Brother scenarios) have not lessened its use. But how much have we really sacrificed on this altar of swiftness and efficiency?

So much of what we know of the world stems from private letters. Our principal eyewitness accounts of Vesuvius derives from a letter from Pliny the Younger to the Roman historian Tacitus. Our knowledge of the Roman world has been hugely by the discovery in the early 1970's of inky messages on oak and birch discovered not far from Hadrian's Wall in Britain.The letters of Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn, and of Napoleon to Josephine show infatuation, weakness and anger - useful additions to rounded character portraits.

And then there are the letters in our attic, the cache in the trunk or shoebox that may rewrite family history. Most letters won't hold dark secrets, but many will illuminate the shadows; this is how we felt, this is how we felt about things. And we did think. Letters have always had the power to grant us a larger life, and their physical presence carries human traces. Pixels are pixels from here to Timbuktu, and emails leave no emotional trace of handwriting and other personal foibles. Letters tend to hang around far longer than the writer intended, and history is the beneficiary.

An email is less of an event and less of a struggle than a letter. We now tend to regard email as a hybrid between a letter and a phone call. It combines the pleasure of writing as we speak - or at least as we soliloquize - with the word craft that has been the pleasure of letter-writers since Pliny the Younger felt the rumbling of Vesuvius.

The next stage of our epistolary development is already here in the form of texting and social media. Emailing has now become too much trouble. The future of human communication is still a cloud of uncertainty, but a significant segment of it is laden with a gloomy portent. What if email is just a fleeting distraction from the fact that we no longer want to communicate with each other in the way our parents did, or the way we have done for 2000 years. What if we find that our standard substitute for letter-writing is but a temporary and illusory bridge to not writing at all?