Amazing as it may seem to many of us now, human beings wrote letters to each other before the arrival of electronic mail. My mother did. Along with her letters (sometimes typed on a typewriter, sometimes in long hand), she sent me clippings from her local newspaper—another print medium that is in jeopardy—about my old high school friends, how the moose are taking over Anchorage, Alaska, and other items she finds noteworthy. She was a lifelong correspondent, and thus a dinosaur. God bless her for it. But there are a few far younger “dinosaurs” out there, including one of my students who hates email and cherishes letter-writing (“my correspondence,” she affectionately calls it).
What do we lose when we exchange email—or incessant cell phone chatter—for the writing and receiving of letters? We all know what we gain from email and cell phones—speed, transferability (ugly word, that), volume of data, and more. But what features of a good life do we forfeit in the process? As with all communicative technology, there is a trade-off between gains and losses.
For one thing, we tend to replace reflection with rapidity. Email is fast, very fast—and often, too fast. No intermediary object is required for an email. We type letters on a screen and launch them into cyberspace. With letters, we must inscribe symbols onto a page, a distinct physical object that takes up space and which has a marked history of its own. Writing by hand takes time, and is, therefore, inefficient given contemporary quantitative standards. However, the time and effort is takes to write a letter demands a slower pace and allows for more deliberation on what one is writing. In days of yore, many a letter was written only to be torn up and thrown out because one thought better of it. Or perhaps it was tucked away as memorabilia.
In an email age and texting age we may be losing a literary fixture: the collection of noteworthy people’s correspondence, as The New York Times recently noted in an essay by Rachel Donadio called, “Literary Letters, Lost in Cyberspace” (September 4, 2005). I have read entire books made up of the letters of C.S. Lewis (who was always in good form), Francis Schaeffer (the consummate thinking pastor), and others. It is not unusual to find the letters of literary figures or philosophers, such as Bertrand Russell, bound for posterity or included in biographies. “Men of letters” were almost invariably men (or women) of letters. Letters of note tended to be saved or duplicated. Emails, on the other hand, are so multitudinous and so disposable (click or “oops!”), that often they are not translated into a more permanent form. (Digital storage is less permanent and more fragile than paper, since it often decays, is fragmented, or becomes unreadable due to new software. I take this up in The Soul in Cyberspace.)
Letters carry the literal touch of the person who wrote them. Even a typed letter is signed. It is crowned by the signature: one’s own name in one’s own hand. If a letter is hand-written, the sign of the personal is made more manifest. In writing a letter recently (a rarity, I admit), I realized that I seldom write by hand more than a few sentences at a time, usually on my student’s papers. Besides that, I may make a list (for shopping items or articles due to editors), check boxes for various purposes, or fill out forms. My hand writing is poor; in fact, I do not write cursively, but print. It is slow and cumbersome. I must work at making my inscriptions intelligible, and any aesthetic features are out of reach. Nevertheless, our handwriting—heavenly or ghastly or somewhere in between—is our creation, the inscription of our identity placed on receptive material. We may choose the type of pen, color of ink (or inks), and make idiosyncratic notations. Yes, email gives us a plethora of choices, such as fonts, emoticons (now animated), text size, photograph-pasting, and so on, but these are pre-selected for us by others. They are not created by us specifically for another. The manner of writing itself—apart from its overt intellectual content—may be revealing. A good friend of mine told me that her mother discerned the disheveled state of her soul not by the content of her writing, but by the contours of her handwriting.
Simply because letters are irrepressibly personal, most of us still get a small (but not cheap) thrill from finding a letter in our mail box addressed to us in handwriting (and not machine produced)—a letter that often has a telltale thickness, indicating that it houses several pages, folded and written by human hands. Perhaps we should send and receive fewer emails, yell into the cell less often, and instead give and receive the small but tangible joy a letter can afford. Perhaps (to consider something quite radical for most) we should even work on our penmanship as a way of working on our relationships.
Douglas Groothuis is Professsor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary and the author of On Jesus (Wadsworth, 2003).