In an age when we have come to expect things to happen for us instantaneously, letter-writing is a school for patience. Letter-writing also has the mysterious power to convey not just the words but the presence of the person. It has been the nourishment of romantic love for ages. In writing letters, we participate in a great tradition.
Seeking to loosen the stranglehold of the digital world, I have recently revived the practice of writing letters. It is wonderfully liberating. To be sure, some have been typed business letters, but others have been simple exchanges with friends, written by hand. I have discovered that writing letters by hand fosters essential virtues and brings distinct pleasures. I would even say that writing letters is essential to a civilized life. Amid the cult of efficiency and convenience, letters are like a gift of self.
E-mail was invented to be able to send and receive messages in an instant—it is perhaps the ne plus ultra in the long development that began with the printing press. Yet for thousands of years before this we wrote letters. Not just the delivery, but the very writing of a letter by hand forces you to slow down. It is an act every part of which expresses care, attention, and deliberate intent. It costs more, in every sense. You must select and purchase stationery, a pen, and postage stamps. In planning your letter, there are formal rules to be learned and followed. Since there is no ready-made type font, you must make a conscious effort to form letters and words. A good hand, essential in order to be understood, takes effort and practice.
Yet this extra effort liberates you to greater individuality, as there are as many different types of handwriting as there are people. Your handwriting is as private as your fingerprint and is a sort of documentation in real time, reflecting your state of mind at the moment. Digital communication is inherently functional and impersonal. With a letter, every aspect—stationery, handwriting, envelope—can convey personality and taste.
Digital communication has a tendency to be awkward, vague, sloppy, or all three. Because it takes more time and effort, and because it uses the finite resources of paper and ink, letter-writing fosters greater precision and exactness. At a time when every trivial incident is broadcast electronically, writing a letter forces you to filter your information and set down the essential and significant. It is a true act of creation, with nothing random about it.
Forming your thoughts and expressing them in a letter, marrying content with form, is a discipline rich in intellectual and aesthetic meaning. There is a set of decisive judgments dealing with taste and proportion. What’s more, letter-writing all but negates multitasking; it demands as much concentration as playing an instrument, or reading a book, or any other serious activity.
None of this implies that a letter must be ornate or fussy in style. What I most admire in 18th–century correspondence is its almost casual simplicity—as can be seen in a short letter George Washington wrote to Martha during the Revolutionary War. Notice the rather loose series of clauses, sufficient to convey the urgency of the moment—it is a love letter on the run.
Phila. June 23d 1775.
As I am within a few Minutes of leaving this City, I could not think of departing from it without dropping you a line; especially as I do not know whether it may be in my power to write again till I get to the Camp at Boston—I go fully trusting in that Providence, which has been more bountiful to me than I deserve, & in full confidence of a happy meeting with you sometime in the Fall—I have not time to add more, as I am surrounded with Company to take leave of me—I retain an unalterable affection for you, which neither time or distance can change, my best love to Jack & Nelly, & regard for the rest of the Family concludes me with the utmost truth & sincerity.
Here’s a paradox: While more planned, handwritten letters can be at the same time more spontaneous. What is written by hand is often looser, less calculated, more natural than what is typed on a machine. Try it and see if you agree.
For the reader, a letter has a physicality that is lacking in text on a screen. It has the mysterious power to convey not just the words but the presence of the person. It is corporeal and engages the senses. Try sending a letter to a friend and see if your state of mind doesn’t pleasantly change upon receiving your reply and if you aren’t in some way more aware of him or her.
There are more benefits besides. In an age when we have come to expect things to happen for us instantaneously, letter-writing is a school for patience. While waiting for a reply, your imagination takes wing, and the reward is the more gratifying. There is real pleasure in expectation, which only enhances the joy of receiving. The slower, more leisurely rhythm of letter-writing can only be a balm in his hectic age.
A letter is also made to last, which can’t be said for most of our electronic blasts. It can be taken up numberless times, pondered over, and cherished. Letter receivers over the centuries have traditionally saved their correspondence as a thing to be cherished—or burned, as the case may be, which is only the exception that proves the rule.
Indeed, letter-writing is intimately tied to the history of civilization; it’s easy to forget the extent to which the historical record has been kept through letters. When practiced by the exceptional, letters are enshrined as literature; centuries later we still read what St. Paul or Thomas Jefferson revealed of their thought in their epistles. Letter-writing has been the nourishment of romantic love for ages. In writing letters, we participate in a great tradition.
When reading biographies of famous people of the past, you can’t help noticing that they devoted a portion of their day to reading and answering correspondence. Writing letters has the power of focusing and organizing one’s day, without becoming absorbed into the hundred-and-one other distractions of digital life. It is a world set apart.
The question of typing versus handwriting shouldn’t really affect our endorsement of letters. When the word processor came on the scene, William F. Buckley surprised traditionalists by endorsing it, citing the feeling of infinite freedom it gave the writer—a bit like oil painting to the artist. I heartily agree; I always compose my essays at a computer and would be lost without it. But I am equally certain that we should carve out a space for handwritten communication.
Admittedly, my interest in messaging technology is frozen in amber. I am a staunch e-mail and personal computer man; smart phones and text messaging are anathema to me. That’s why returning to letter-writing was but a small step back. But I have been led to some tough questions: Does the fact that technology evolves mean that the quality of the experience improves? By forsaking handwritten communication, are we missing something not just pleasurable but essential to the good life? Is the fact that we don’t write letters anymore simply a case of falling in with the herd?
Letter-writing expresses countless facets of the human condition, and that is perhaps the most important reason to keep it alive: We write a letter not to get information, but to share of ourselves. By discarding the letter, we shall become less human. It will be a sad day indeed when the only letter we ever receive is the occasional notice from the IRS.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Officer Writing a Letter” by Gerard ter Borch (1617-1681), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.