Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Gift of Letters

       I was listening to BBC radio last night and the topic of letters was being discussed. Specifically, the presenters were discussing whether letters were still relevant in the world of email, Facebook and Twitter. (As of the time I'm writing this, I can't find a link to the particular program.) The presenters were split on whether letters still had a place in the world. One argument was made that levels of privacy and depth are far more nuanced using the various modes of electronic communication rather than letters. I've heard other arguments on the topic that letters are typically better written because one takes their time when composing a letter.

      Looking back at my own history of letter writing I realized that though I was once prolific, but I realistically haven't written a letter in years. I, like many others, have abandoned letter writing for electronic means. But I still miss letters. Why is that? It's true that 140 characters can only share so much, but an email can be as well composed and written as a letter, even more so with spelling and grammar check. I don't think its the content of letters which was so valuable, I think it was the letter itself.

      Instead of this being a discussion of content, I think it is a discussion of object. The letter versus the email is similar to the book versus the eBook. When you send someone a letter, you aren't just sending information. You are sending a gift crafted with your own hands, whether it is written on cotton rag paper or coffee stained notebook paper. I still have almost all the thoughtful correspondence that anyone has ever sent me. While it is fun to look back through old emails, it is more satisfying to pick through a box filled with all different sorts of paper from napkins to stationery with Florentine envelope linings. Drawings, poems, stamps, and all sorts of two dimensional gifts that people have sent to me over the years.

     Sadly, the last batch of letters I might realistically have received was when I was in Army basic training. Letters were the only correspondence we were allowed to have with the outside world. My friends and family really came through for me by sending me lots of letters during those 11 weeks or so. I still have every one.

      The BBC presenter who praised the versatility of the many different types of electronic communication was exactly right. But, my hope is that writing letters will have the sort of old-timey appeal that has drawn people back to hobbies like knitting and canning. It would be a fad that might just have more staying power than others because it would re-establish the exchange of objects that draw people closer together. And it smells better than urban chicken farming.

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