U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Inarticulate by Choice: The Decline of Letter Writing and the Future of the Intellectual Past, Part Five

By Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

Are our latest electronic technologies capacious enough to provide a real space for the cultivation of the outward-extending interiority associated with letter-writing and attendant activities? I’d love to think so. Please prove your case by making it happen.

Enthusiasts say, enthusiastically, yes! Well, actually they say something more vague, along the lines that new technologies allow for new forms of everything, from interiority to communication. We’re waiting…

My hopelessly old-fashioned question is, simply, and most likely, simplistically:

Can email be used to continue the practice of letter writing?

Just so you know, I fully realize how quaint that sounds, how out of step with our times, how amusing. I’m even amused. But maybe you will agree with me–later if not at this moment–that not everything amusing is a laughing matter.

I think that whether real letters can still survive, exist, or be revived in the plugged-in, shock-giving, electrified form of email is really the key question at this particular moment in the history of technologies of writing and communications. Why? For the reasons I’ve been trying to suggest in recent posts having to do with the precise form of reflection, interiority, communication, and human connection embodied in the personal letter and associated practices. But also because I don’t see the other current forms–such as cell phone texting (CMIIW), tweeting (really, now), or posting on people’s “walls” on social network sites like Facebook (Hey, everyone, here’s me having fun!)–as contenders. In an earlier post, I did suggest that bløgging, which I think is a different animal, may be doing some of what letter-writing used to do.

If the best written correspondence does not have to be unplugged, so be it. I’m game. If it potentially means fewer half-baked, soul-crushingly cryptic and business-like memos and more reflection and communication of genuine thoughts and feelings in their elaborate complexity, anything is worth a try. I would envision something like this, but others might suggest something better. I’m all ears.

How to Lend to Email the Quality and Qualities of Letters*

*if it can be done, which is highly unlikely

1. Set up a separate non-work email account for privacy and distinction from existing, soulless accounts.
2. Deliberate over aesthetics, changing details like signature and font size and style until you have a distinctive stationery of sorts. Save the template and set it as your new default so your electronic letters have some consistent character identified with you, as usually happens with real mail.
3. Compose your missive at greater length than with a typical email, taking the care you might with a letter.
4. Think once, twice, even thrice about word choice, even perhaps consulting a reference work designed to help in this effort, such as a dictionary or even a thesaurus, which a classicist told me today means “treasure” in Greek.
5. Pause to reflect, proofread, and consider what you have written. Does it convey what you want it to convey? After all, some (postmodernists but even many before them) have rightly anguished over the inability of words to capture fully what we mean under the best circumstances, so just one approach, given this conundrum, might be trying to come as close as possible.
6. Try imagining yourself the intended recipient when thinking of what to say and how to say it.
7. Don’t click on “send” until you are really ready.
8. On the receiving end, don’t click on “open” until you are really ready. Then, print it.
9. If it is a case of wanting to savor it, wait until you can tune everything else out and give it the attention it deserves. Arrange your setting just so: perhaps make a cup of coffee and settle into a favorite chair, go to the café, sit somewhere where you can look off into the distance, watch the clouds go by, lose yourself in the voice behind the words on paper. Yes, paper. Call me what you will. And if you are dreading this communication for any reason, put in place the proper supports (a stiff drink, a good friend nearby with a real–here virtual really won’t do–shoulder to cry on) or, perhaps better yet, just press “delete.” (Maybe this is where electronics do come in more handy than previous forms, as tearing up paper takes more effort and time.)
10. Read it. Slowly.
11. If it is worthy, reread it.
12. If it is worthy, reread it. (You get the picture. This step can and should be repeated as many times as you need or wish.)
13. Give yourself time to think about what you are reading and have read.
14. Give yourself time to feel something about what you are reading and have read, or about anything else that comes up as you do.
15. Let time pass. Yes, time. You’ve heard of it before. This can be done.
16. Now ask yourself what you think and feel about what you have read. This is one of the most interesting and important aspects of all this, after all–the thinking and feeling a real letter can occasion. And the time element. Meaningful written communications, like very few other things, have that intriguing capacity to turn back, move forward, stop, fill to overflowing, and otherwise alter time as we know it.
17. When ready, write back. That is, write back if and only if you feel compelled to do so. Was anything actually compelling in what the other has written? This is a test of whether such communications should continue to be exchanged between you and the recipient of the product of what can only be considered a labor of love. Composing and mustering up the courage to send a real letter requires significant time and effort, unlike the usual run-of-the-mill email message, that paragon of thoughtlessness. As has been said of aging, opening one’s heart or mind or soul to another, let alone two of these or, as happens only in the rarest of cases, all three, is not for the faint of heart.

A small number of self-imposed rules might enhance the experience, such as:

1. No use of “cc.” Ever.
2. No use of “bcc.” Ever times infinity.
3. No clicking on “reply” until at least 24 hours after receiving a letter-type email, just as you would normally wait to send a response through the regular mail until the next day’s mail. (I for one might be willing to grant an exception to this rule in cases of great passion, as in the days of hand-delivered missives, deliverable at all hours–at least in the movies. In this case, the response-time might be part of the content of what is actually being communicated.)
4. No reading without printing. If a letter cannot even be said to be worth the paper it was printed on, can it really be considered a letter? And in the event it turns out not to be worth the paper it was printed on, please recycle.

Ok, then. You can write me a letter to let me know whether it is working. But don’t forget to put a stamp on it.

Just another nostalgic dispatch from the virtual trenches of the Slow Thought movement…

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn! What can I say in response to all of your marvelous posts but that a great book is in here somewhere, and if it gets published I will be the first to buy it, read it, and review it. You are absolutely right and the key to your argument is the power of Form, Form being the magical X factor that gets lost in the change from letter to Email.

  2. Dear Ms. Lasch-Quinn,

    How gratifying to find there are still folks kicking around in this modern age who pine for the lost art of letter writing.

    Sadly, as promising as your email-as-letter plan sounds, it will be unable to re-create the scented envelope, the unique character of human handwriting and the satisfaction of deciphering a loved one’s familiar scrawl, not to mention the contemplative hours spent sitting at the end of the drive awaiting the mail carrier.

    It is yet a worthy endeavor, and I applaud you.



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