My twelve-year-old daughter announced that this was going to be the year of the letter. She decided that she was only going to communicate with friends and relatives who live some distance away by handwriting her correspondence. She has always wanted a pen-pal, and I have always encouraged letter writing (being a big fan of all things epistolary). Her declaration caused me to reflect on my own love of reading and writing letters – and why we just don’t do it as often anymore.
Letters, as we all know, have been a crucial part of the history of humanity. As a primary form of communication in literate societies, the evolution of the letter has been a window into changing cultures throughout the world. Letter forms started to become “standardized” with the development of letter-writing manuals in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. These manuals traveled across continents with the expansion of the European Empire. At the same time, the epistolary novel was born, and letters began to take on new meanings and importance. It is this point that I identify as the beginning of my love affair with letters. This exciting period of change redefined what it meant to correspond with one another – much as we (in the 21st-century) have defined our own experience of communication.
With the development of the Information Age and the widespread use of the Internet, pen and ink letter writing has become an antiquated, almost extinct practice. For most, this more recent shift in communication has probably been just as exciting as those readers and writers would have experienced in Cowper and Richardson’s day. We can now communicate with others across the planet in mere seconds. Email, social networking, and instant messaging are certainly much faster and inexpensive options to hand-writing a letter. So, why do it? Why write a letter when corresponding via Facebook and Twitter are much more efficient options?
There are thousands of studies and papers written on the social and psychological aspects of increased Internet-based interactions — more than could ever be adequately discussed in one blog post. It is much easier to offer a few of the reasons why I love letter-writing and encourage my daughter to develop a love of it as well. There is a meditative quality to taking out a fine piece of stationary and one’s favorite pen, and writing a letter to someone who will appreciate the gesture. The sentiment expressed in that letter is heightened by the curve of the handwriting, the pressure with which each letter is formed, and the flow of consciousness that is not so easily removed as hitting the delete key on a keyboard. Not only does handwriting express one’s personality and individuality, it often fills in the emotional and tonal blanks that typewritten correspondence lacks. The development of thought becomes completely organic. It may be a “romantic” notion that makes letter writing appealing to me. But, that personal attention from a loved one has a great deal more substance than even the most sophisticated email, and the process of writing a letter is exponentially more satisfying than generating a quick reply in 140 characters or less. So, the one thing that will bring us together each week over a cup of tea will be our letter writing supplies as we celebrate our year of the letter. I may even get to squeeze some letter-writing history into the conversation as well.