Life in the 60’s: The lost art of letter-writing
“How wonderful it is to be able to write someone a letter! To feel like conveying your thoughts to a person, to sit at your desk and pick up a pen, to put your thoughts into words like this is truly marvelous.”
– Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood
When was the last time you wrote a letter? Or received one? Are you old enough to remember the thrill of tearing open a hand-addressed envelope, hefty with two or three — or 20 if you’re a verbose 16-year-old — folded pages? With emails, Facebook posts, blogs, WhatsApp, text messaging and all the other myriad ways of communicating instantly available to us now, the old-fashioned letter has pretty much disappeared.
All these new forms of communication are read on a device – computer, iPad, smart phone – the very nature of which encourages speed. An email, even from a good friend or close family member, tends to be short. If it’s long, no matter how much you love your interlocutor, you might feel a touch of irritation, because emails are read on the go or at your desk in the middle of doing a dozen other things. (Just look and see how many tabs you have open right now.)
A letter, on the other hand, is read while comfortably sitting in your favorite chair. You hold paper in your hand as you read slowly, savoring this treat. For even in the days of letters, a good, long letter from someone you cared for was a treasure. Those of us born before 1990 most likely have a box or file folder – or even a small suitcase or two as in my case – of letters from childhood friends, lovers, teachers, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers…
A letter is written from one heart, mind and soul to another. It requires time, that ever- decreasing resource. As we write, we reflect, mull over our experiences, choose the ones we wish to share, consider our words. Letter-writing slows us down, lets us muse. When was the last time you mused?
When I was younger, I would look through the mail, quickly putting aside bills or ads and feel that quickening of excitement if there was a hand addressed envelope to me from a friend. Like playing in the street, is this going to be one of life’s major pleasures that is relegated to the heap of history? Certainly, Lewis Carroll’s quip, “The proper definition of a man is an animal that writes letters” no longer applies.
What are we missing by not having letters in our lives?
I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve written an actual letter. I would guess years. But as I read about the exhibits honoring the 125th anniversary of Vincent Van Gogh’s death in the Times just now, I was taken by how much we know of the artist’s life though his letters. The Times’ Nina Siegal writes, “Van Gogh, distraught after being let go from the ministry, also dropped out of correspondence with his family for a while. ‘The letters from that period are few, so our knowledge is not as deep as it is from other periods,’ Mr. Van Huegten (former head of collections at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam) said.”
I might occasionally save or even print an email but no one will ever tie emails with a red ribbon and put them in a box for safekeeping. Coming across letters written during other parts of our lives – with the stamps and the wavy lines through the postmark — gives us a glimpse into who we once were that nothing else quite captures. And when the letter-writer is no longer among the living, her letters leave her words, thoughts and feelings behind for us to read and re-read, to share with others, to evoke memories, to bring the person back for a few minutes when we most miss her.
I’m going to stop writing this blog post now and go write a letter.