Opinions, Column

The Loss Of The Letter

Everyday for the last two weeks, I’ve checked my mailbox. You see, I’m waiting. Some days patiently, some days not so patiently, but nonetheless, every day after class, I swipe into Voute, go to the mailroom, get on my tiptoes, and peer inside. Each day, I walk away empty-handed.

I’m not even sure if what I’m waiting for will ever come. Not because he doesn’t care or is too lazy to write-letters are simply not a common means of communication anymore. In fact, he argues, doesn’t it just make more sense to Skype?
The amount of letters written each year has been decreasing for centuries. Historians claim this is partially due to the telegraph, the phone, and the ease of transportation, and partially due to the simplification of communication all together. There is no need to write in detail about how a joke written to you a week ago made you laugh so hard your sides hurt, especially when it is easier simply to type “lol” to a funny text you received 30 seconds ago. Little by little, each generation has developed its own reasons and excuses for ditching socialization via ink on paper and, as a result, the art of the letter has almost been eliminated altogether from the 21st century’s means of communication.

Yet today’s generation marks a new and telling shift. Previously, letters were abandoned due to the convenience of other modes of communication (i.e. the phone or email). This was a matter of practicality, not a lack of ability. The problem today’s youth has with letters is completely different. Rather than simply opting for another way to correspond for the sake of ease, we have left the letter behind due to impatience and an inability to communicate in long form. Constantly bombarded with texts, tweets, or posts on a wall, it is very uncommon for 20-something’s to communicate in a written form longer than 140 characters, not to mention wait a week or two for a response. In such a high-tech, high-speed world, it seems like the letter has lost its place.

So what do we lose? Most obvious is the physical beauty of the art. The aesthetic pleasantries of a dark cursive word carved onto the contrasting white of paper are simply overwhelming. The soft crinkle of opening an envelope or the folds of an inscribed message is soft to the ear. These distinct characteristics are simply absent from email.

Letters also allow one to deliberate fully and commit to each and every thought with caution and certainty. The physical act of writing a word takes longer than the quick tap of a few keys, allowing one the time necessary to formulate each sentence fully. This is further illustrated by the fact that one cannot simply backspace when a mistake is made or one changes his or her mind. With the written word, one must compose thoughts in the mind, ensure their perfection, and then assiduously put them on paper, none of which are necessary for an email.

Yet, the loss of aesthetics and certainty of context are personal, and while they are significant and worthy of attention, one must also consider the bigger picture.

There is a book on my desk that I’ve read multiple times cover-to-cover entitled Love Letters of Brilliant Men. Within the pages, I find myself in the minds of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Oscar Wilde. I am at once firmly informed of the love they felt toward the recipient. For example, “my angle, my all, my own self” writes Beethoven to a women he addresses as “immortal beloved.” Yet, beyond this I also see their concerns of being separated from their soul mates. Mozart writes to his wife, “I beg in your conduct not only to be careful of your honor and mine, but also to consider appearances. Do not be angry with me for asking this. You ought to love me even more for thus valuing our honor.” Beyond the obvious affection shown, through these letters I can get a taste of the life these men, and the women they loved, lived. Preserved between the carefully chosen words are true reactions to the everyday world they experienced, the cultural anxieties they faced, and the personal trials they confronted. These thoughts and words are uncensored-they expose raw emotion.

As one can see, letters have a historical significance often forgotten. It is through the correspondence of two sisters that the world learned about Jane Austen and through Pliny the Younger’s letter to a historian that we saw a picture of Vesuvius erupting right before our eyes. In fact, many aspects of history would have been lost if not for what was, almost literally in that time, snail mail. This is not a concern that only I have. Many articles, essays, and even books address what the loss of the letter means to society, history, and the human soul. And just what do they say happens when we stop being able to articulate and formulate fully our love for another or express vividly via words the things we see or the way in which events impact us, both on a personal level and on a cultural level? A part of society, and man, is lost.
Of course, the reason I wrote in the first place was that it was the means of communication by Virginia Woolf and Jack Kerouac. It’s fun, cute, even romantic. It’s also just nice to know someone took the time to write. It was in no way an effort to preserve the daily life of a college student, but, in effect, that is what I did. I don’t pretend to think that my letters will someday change the way a historian looks at the 21st century, but I do believe someone’s will. It is important to realize what is preserved between ink and page is important-for the individual, for society, and for history in a larger respect. After all, somehow I don’t see the next bestseller title being Love Emails of JK Rowling.

Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.


February 20, 2014