Writing letters. Image ID: 492749While engaging in some much-needed but rarely performed spring cleaning in my apartment, I recently encountered several letters written to me by a maternal great-great aunt years ago. This dovetailed nicely with my supervisor's request that I write my April blog post on the topic of card and letter writing.
My aunt served as a tremendous font of hard earned wisdom garnered over her ninety-nine years on this earth. In addition to being a sagacious nonagenarian, my aunt was a Roman Catholic nun for over eighty years, working as a teaching sister for many years, was a Mother Superior, and, even in her nineties, worked at the retirement convent by assisting with recordkeeping duties. All of which may assist in explaining my utter amazement when my aunt inveighed against the "overuse" of the "fax machine" as "placing too much pressure on people to work." When I articulated my surprise at my aunt's statement in this regard, my aunt responded by stating that while she was not against hard work, the pressure on people to respond so quickly was not healthy nor wise. "Contemplation is becoming a lost art," my aunt complained to me over fifteen years ago.
There exists no dearth of articles, blogs and even books that extol the seemingly near-lost virtue of letter writing. While I reiterate that I am unabashedly a fan of yesteryear in many respects, even I realize that hoping that people will revert to communicating without heavily relying on the usage of e-mail and other forms of electronic communication is akin to an entity in centuries gone by inveighing a scribe to "put down that pen and send smoke signals" to communicate. The expediency of e-mail communication is often—but not always, a beneficial feature. However, as President Thomas Jefferson admonished, "When angry, count to 10 before you speak. If very angry, a hundred." This wise counsel is highly applicable to e-mail communications.
Another advantage that physical letter writing enjoys over e-mail communication is that it not as facile to forge an entire letter, especially if the reader of the relevant letter is familiar with the handwriting of the writer of said letter, whereas "spoofing" and erstwhile interception of e-mail communications represent far too frequent perils of electronic communications. Physical letters do not perish if the hard drive on one's computer becomes permanently inoperable. Culturally speaking, songs where mail is mentioned (such as "Please Mr. Postman") would lose their respective poignancy if the lyrics were altered to suit modern technology (I don't know about you, but "Please Mr. Internet Server" just doesn't sound quite as poignant to me!) On that note, in certain circles, it is lamented that e-communications are cultivating a culture of impatience wherever said communications are prevalent. Historically, the "Holmes-Pollock Letters" sound more eloquent on a prima facie basis than the "Holmes-Pollock e-mails." In terms of literature, few readers today would accept fictional attorney Perry Mason instructing Della Street to "take a letter" as realistic. And, I wonder how many inchoate adminstrative assistants are coerced to struggle with mastering the skill of shorthand nowadays, when so many supervisors type their own respective communications, (although there are admittedly still some business uses for shorthand skills).
And, in the spirit of what my aunt so wisely observed years ago, the opportunity to mull over one's thoughts, to chew on the end of one's pencil or pen while contemplating the correct words to call upon from one's lexicon, is largely absent when one composes an e-mail communication. Fingers can usually fly over a keyboard far more expeditiously than a pencil can scratch those same words on paper. While e-mail might be more environmentally friendly in term of "less dead trees," there is still room in our society for physical letter writing. And, unless I lack the relevant entity's mailing address, I usually follow-up a birthday or other special occasion greeting expressed on Facebook, for example, with a physical card because I wish to convey the level of caring necessary to send a physical card as opposed to just dashing off a few words on a keyboard and striking the "send" or "enter" key. Although I simply adore receiving any communication from my nephew and niece, reading an e-mail communication does not produce the level of feelings of sentimentality in me that I experience when I re-encounter one of their childish cards made for me with construction paper and crayons.
The NYPL contains many items in its circulating collection that either pertain directly to the topic of letter writing or concern works of fiction where a written letter or card is pivotal to the story. The list appearing below is not intended to be completely inclusive on the matter, but merely represents a sample of some of the relevant material.