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The lost art of letter-writing. Sigh.

Nowadays, the term “snail mail” implies some ancient form of communication left for those too inept or unfortunate to use much-faster email. Sure, I appreciate the number of trees that emails save, but bemoan the loss of hand-written letters. What impact will today’s digital fixation (and I don’t mean finger fetishes) have on future archivists, not to mention modern lovers?

How can a staid email remotely compete with a  billet-doux that comes in a scented envelope, complete with rose petals or pressed flowers? Staring at on-screen type is far more dull than viewing someone’s unique handwriting with loopy vowels and long, slanted consonants. I treasure my cards, letters, and notes from loved ones far more than any email I’ve received from them. 

Finding a stack of emails in the bottom of someone’s cupboard or attic trunk doesn’t bear the same cachet or  mystery as discovering a pile of faded letters postmarked from countless places, squeezed together by an elastic. Clicking on one’s inbox loses allure compared to having letters squeezed through your front door or running outside to a rural mailbox to see what’s inside.

Over decades, I’ve received letters from a number of writers or artists I admire, including Benjamin Hoff, author of The Tao of Pooh, Canadian children’s writer Dennis Lee, sci fi maven Ursula LeGuin, and Mort Drucker, a long-time Mad magazine cartoonist. Each one of these felt like a special gift, almost a warm chat across a coffee table, not patchy, stilted dialogue that took place on delayed time via the computer.

Many years ago, I was horrifed to discover that my parents and I actually liked the same movie, one that reveals the power and delight of letters and romance. It’s 84 Charing Cross Road, which stars Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins. Bancroft plays a writer and passionate reader in 1949 New York who answers an ad from a rare-books shop in London, Eng. at 84 Charing Cross Road. The resulting heartfelt letters between Bancroft and Hopkins, the book store rep, prompt a two-decade romance.

(I won’t tell you how the movie ends. I love its assessment by Vincent Canby of The New York Times, even though I don’t fully agree: “The result of this high-powered collaboration is a movie of such unrelieved genteelness that it makes one long to head for Schrafft’s for a double-gin martini, straight up, and a stack of cinnamon toast from which the crusts have been removed.”)

In the future, how many lives of celebrated authors will remain only partially documented because they never saved their emails? What will their public archives contain? As an author, historian, and keen researcher, I love coming across original, turn-of-the-century letters or handwritten documents from another era. They certainly more richly reveal the essence of a period than rows of email type. I fear that today, while we’re so busy Skyping and tweeting and emailing, we will lose to the maw of email the basic charm  and sentimental weight of letters as touchstones. From our family histories to cultural records, our romantic hearts need letters as more personalized markers of a time and place.

November 28, 2010 at 4:54 pm
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