Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Losing Our Letters

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, who is 75, still does. Along with her letters (sometimes typed on a typewriter, sometimes in long hand), she sends 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 is 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, 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 Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary and the author of On Jesus (Wadsworth, 2003).


R. Mansfield said...

I realized at some point in the nineties that my correspondence folder (literal folder in a literal filing cabinet) was getting less and less used as I began utilizing email more. So I began looking for ways to archive email. I found a great little company called Softhing that makes email archiving utilities for a few Mac email applications.

So about every six months or so, I organize all my emails (sent and received) into folders named for the person with whom I am in correspondence. I create these folders within the email application itself (currently, MS Entourage 2004). Then I run the Entourage Email Archive program from Softhing and it arranges all my email into folders based on the person's name, the date of correspondence, and the time the message was sent. I have it set not only to save an original email file (which if clicked upon opens in Entourage), but also a text file backup within the same folder. I am assuming that in decades to come, we will still be able to read basic text files.

I agree with you that emails don't always carry as much meaning as an actual handwritten letter, but at least I will have an archive of my email correspondence in the years to come.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

My point was not just that we don't keep track of our communications as well with email, but that we have exchanged one medium for another. In that, we experience loss--even if we keep all the data, even if we organize it more efficiently. That was my central salient point.

Doug Groothuis

R. Mansfield said...

Dr. Groothuis,

I agree that we do experience loss from our exchange of mediums. I have a few letters that my grandmother wrote me when I was a child--just to me, not the whole family. Those were special and I still keep them. There's something significant about the letter in my hand and seeing her handwriting (which was near perfect as she had been an elementary school teacher).

In the mid-nineties, I was working at the SBTS campus bookstore. We had really already entered the email age at that time when we receieved a handwritten letter from George Beasley-Murray all the way from England with a list of books he asked us to "procure and obtain." Dr. Beasley-Murray's personality came across in that simple letter not only through his message, but also through his handwriting and the style of paper he chose. Maybe it was silly, but I kept the letter and I tucked it into my copy of his commentary on John (WBC).

One thing we've gained with email is more frequent communication (which can be good and bad). When I was growing up, we rarely made long-distance calls because they were too expensive. My mother and grandmother exchanged letters once or twice a month. But my experience with my parents (and extended family for that matter) is different. With cell phones in which long-distance is included in my minutes and with email, I am in contact with both of my parents many times during the week. That's helpful since I live so far away from them. Cell phones, email, instant messaging help bridge that distance. In fact, my folks and I both got iSight cameras and once or twice a month we can talk face to face even though we are 700 miles away.

So there are gains and losses. One thing I've noticed over the past few years is that if you really want to catch someone's attention, an actual handwritten letter will do it. Email often feels so much like the memo of the day, that an actual letter communicates, "this is really important."

DSP said...

I really enjoyed this post.
The point about speed and efficiency undermining deliberation made a lot of sense. Too often, especially of late, I have found myself dashing off comments to boards like these only to realize moments later that they were ill-prepared and indefensible.
Notice the absolute lack of concern for grammar and spelling found not only on blogs, but in emails as well.
Hopefully I've left no typos behind on this occasion.

John Schroeder said...

Email does not reveal ourselves in the same way that handwriting does, but when well done, it will be revelatory nonetheless. Read more of my thoughts on this here

Ron said...

This is, of course very much what Neil Postman and Marshall McLuhan wer talking about with the phrase ‘the medium is the message.’

Mick Davies said...

As a child, the handwritten postcards (there was no other kind then) that my Nana received from her lifelong friends were a fascination, for three months while in boot camp ten years ago I wrote regularly to my then fiancé, and I have kept a handwritten journal for over twenty years. Only recently, however, have I attempted to share my own private practice and revive it among my close friends whom all, save one, live on the other side of the country. A set of picture postcards of personal photographs on archival paper sent to all as holiday gifts will hopefully be the means for them to begin a return to the carefully considered handwritten word. Even as I was preparing to send the postcard set out for the holidays one dear friend e-mailed me to say she missed old-fashioned letter writing and wished to continue to stay in touch "by hand".

As children grow up with computers in schools, at home, in libraries, and elsewhere it is up to those of use who remember a time before word processors and e-mail to hand down a tradition that is being taken for granted and silently dying. The last generations to be born before the personal computer were not prepared to face the possible demise of handwritten correspondence because such a possibility is only now being recognized; perhaps too late but hopefully not. The handwritten word is not something any society can afford to lose. It is the lowest common denominator for any civilization. Even as we surrounded ourselves with technology it is our ability to communicate with the written word, not typed or processed, but written that insures our ability to do more than simply survive. When all else has faded, decayed, or been destroyed it will be civilization's ability to communicate with the written word that will insure its ability to thrive.

It is nothing short of magic that with only ink, paper, and able mind we can create something out of nothing; and in our ability to create we glimpse the power of our Gods in ourselves. For now, we need only instill in our young charges a desire to see their thoughts, their ideas, flow as words from their impressionable minds onto paper using only their hands, a pen, and an inkwell.