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To Read or to Listen?
This is a letter about letters. In the age of electronic books and audiobooks and podcasts, I don’t read like I used to and I certainly don’t write like I used to. Friends and family tell me they listen to books, the physical and sensual pleasures of reading words on the page supplanted by the auditory, a dramatized performance by a reader. I find myself listening to content more too, though I usually have to be on the move, that is, in my car or on a walk. I like the physical page, the heft of a book, its spine cradled in my palm. When I’m traveling, it is easier to tote a library of books on Kindle than tote their equivalent weight. I wonder what science has to say about memory and the delivery of content: could listening to a reading from a monotone professor compare to a storyteller’s, or an animated and passionate reading? And how does that stack up to reading outright? As in, reading the text, taking in the words on the page?
I don’t know. I think the growing options for content is a good thing and so I experiment. But I am decided about one written form and I’m going to focus on that: the letter, the personal letter.
My love for the letter, the feel of the paper between my fingers, the scrawl on the page, the weight of the envelope with its date stamp, all of it are as meaningful as the message from the sender. Think on it: the beauty of that increasingly rare gift, of individual thought and reflection, directed and written for you, with you in mind, no 500+ audience, no social global sphere, just you. When was the last letter you wrote, the last you received? And I mean something more than a sentence beneath the card inscription?
My hand tires when I’m writing now, so I will type a letter and print it out, so I can stuff it in an envelope and mail it. For some letters, I’ve tucked them away for my children to read one day, to their future selves. It’s hard to part with a letter someone has written to me. I’m a decent enough correspondent if you don’t mind waiting. Waiting is the currency of letter writing after all and I’ve found that I easily write two to three letters to one received, if not more. I often find the recipient is in digital contact with me before she has the letter. So why do it? The rewards are worth the effort, the thrill of getting a letter. And the feeling of writing to someone and sharing is as rich, if in a different way, the sated and gratifying feeling of writing something honest to someone you care about, thinking of him opening it and sitting down to read it.
I’m old enough to remember pen pals and writing friends and family when one of us moved. That was a different era. Today there seem to be infinite ways to connect via snapchat, Instagram, text, tweets. Freedom of expression has changed, multiplied. Riding a bike and visiting a friend, taking drivers Ed and getting out on the road, were how I stayed in touch in person, how I escaped home life. Young people don’t need to leave their house today; they interact in ways I hadn’t realized existed a short while ago, in video games with others around the world, in virtual play, in digital discussions on projects and documents, through video chats and Skyping.
Children grow up with Social media like fish in water, the technology part of their ecosystem, filtering through it with little or no thought. Humans seem to have grown a collective consciousness with videos gone viral, memes, songs, ideas, all of it instantly available. The digital revolution has provided a hive-like connectivity of the species. This makes the individual letter, the personal missive, the uninterrupted thought and ideas on the page, uncommon, even rare, the exception.
When I think about life in the 80s and early 90s and share that with my children, it seems a jeremiad, a lament. But it is not. The rose-colored lenses of nostalgia may help us remember only the good. The virtues of the digital age are numerous, but this letter is a consideration of the price paid for such advances.
The casualties are hand writing, letters, thoughtful notes, correspondence, and memories. Yes, memories. How do you preserve a thousand picture posts, texts or tweets and what does that even look like: a pixelated graph of chirps?
When my oldest child graduated from High School I chose stationary as gifts for her and her friends. I stepped into the role of dispensing advice, along with gifts or money. The giver holds the receiver captive, if only for a moment.
Here is a letter I wrote to these young women, on the cusp of adulthood.
The Case for the Letter
Dear K-, N-, M-, & C-,
Congratulations to each of you. I wanted to share something I have found a great comfort in my life, especially as a young adult in my formative years: letter writing. In a digital age with immediate communication, 140 to 160 character text bites, instant photo sharing, etc… the letter, the personal handwritten or typed letter has lost its way. I want to make a case for this lonely and lost form.
I don’t wish to criticize the benefits of the digital age, because the net value is infinite and has changed our lives, often for the better. What I wish to share with you is that the depth of thought, reflection, sincerity revealed in a letter, intended for your friend, family, or whomever is the recipient of your effort; it is a gift of your better self, that taking the time to put thoughts on paper without interruption is perhaps one of the greatest gifts you have to give, your time and your love. You may also discover in the process of letter writing, things you did not realize, whether about your friend, your parent, yourself, or simply life. Writing does that, but writing to someone, perhaps illuminates your interior and rich and complex world even more, because you wish to give others a glimpse of who you are.
It may seem I have an ulterior motive with these cards, and I would be wrong to say I did not have a particular recipient in mind. Yet, I am sure that your family and close friends, would value and benefit from your letters more than you realize.
I will share a story. My parents wrote to me every week while I was at West Point and every week of my young life while I was stationed overseas. They used nothing fancy, a few sheets of typing paper, handwritten, often front and back and multiple pages. Then they used a stock envelope. I have kept them all. I have read them and re-read them and stored them away for some years now. Last month, eight years after my father’s passing, I was cleaning out the basement and found a box of old letters. I found 3 months,14 consecutive weeks of handwritten letters from my father. I put them in order and wrapped them in a rubber band. On his birthday, I sat down to read them.
How much I had forgotten is immeasurable, all that was going on in my life during those months when I became engaged and began wedding preparations. From the weather, to home life, to my brother’s life, what arose was an amazing and detailed picture of our world. But the best part of all of it was my father’s own words, in his own hand, and he came to life more fully than I could imagine him in my own memory and in any photograph album. My God he was funny and he was kind.
Your generation is the most photographed generation. A photo is worth a thousand words they say. I would suggest that writing, your own writing is something else entirely, it is your soul on paper. So here are a few things to get you started. These are note cards I picked out for each of you and they shouldn’t require too many sentences to fill! But make the words count. Skip the platitudes and say something, what’s happening to you, how you feel. I never can understand those letters which say, Hi how are you, I’m fine. xo, so and so. Trash words I call them. Be bold and daring, make a statement and share who you are and what you are thinking.
I hope that you will stay in touch. Reach out to each other, not superficially, but with heart and substance. Our home and doors are open to you.
The Public Letter
This may be the best case for the erstwhile letter. I’ve titled my blog and podcast a letter because doing so felt authentic. Some years ago, when I took my children out of school to travel, friends asked how things were going, surprised, in the era of progressive and cutting-edge education, that we’d leave a top school for the year.
Inquiries were numerous and heartfelt. I named the room behind my bedroom where my children did school work, the Tree House, because it was on the third floor with windows on three sides, and views of the poplars and birch trees. To answer my friends’ questions, I began writing the Tree House Letter. The letter has an immediate sense of intimacy, an intended audience, and when I write I may think of my husband, a particular friend, my child; sometimes when I write, I imagine a visit with friends or others walking along side me.
My father was a man of routine. Maybe he found comfort in the ritual of sitting down on Sundays, to reflect on the week’s events, the family, penning the diary of his most intimate thoughts, which he wrote to me. And that has been a lasting and powerful gift.
Charlotte Higgins. The Lost Art of Letter Writing. The Guardian, October 23, 2012
John Mullan. The Missing Ink by Philip Hensher – Review. The Guardian, October 8, 2012.