I found myself writing three personal letters last week. While brief, they were the closest thing to genuine letters I’ve written in quite a while.
Those messages were handwritten on paper, which were then sealed in envelopes. Postage was affixed, and the U.S. Postal Service was trusted for delivery. It felt rewarding.
The lost art of letter writing has been well documented by essayists for years. While I have nothing new to add to all that, it did get me thinking.
Until a little more than a century ago, letters were the only way people at a distance communicated. Smoke signals or drums worked in some cultures, but their range was limited.
Otherwise, symbols were written on everything from stones to paper. Thanks to the markings which have survived, plus transcribed oral histories, we know a bit about how our ancestors lived.
That history is unquestionably lacking, because for centuries only privileged classes had the means and ability to capture their thoughts and aspirations. Documents crafted by the poor or enslaved were lost if they ever existed at all, because the ruling class decided which were worthy of keeping.
Today’s favored means of communication — texts and emails — are generally disposable digital conversations that are difficult to find after a while if recoverable at all, unless specifically secured by government or business. The ease with which those messages are written and the speed with which they are delivered diminishes their perceived value. Conversely, the added time required to write letters by hand and their potential longevity suggest importance.
Increasingly though, people don’t have time for handwritten notes.
A generation ago, the wisdom of the world was held by books in libraries. That knowledge is still there, but today, it’s been duplicated digitally in the world’s vast network of computers. Millions of words are being added every day, and while some are committed to paper, those and many more are being stored on virtual pages searchable on the device of your choice in your favorite font.
The substance of a person’s thoughts may be there, but any additional clues to the personality of the writer have been sanitized. In a word, we’re losing the humanity of our scripts.
While employed by the Brownwood Bulletin for over four decades, and working at a trio of other newspapers for a few years more, I often received feedback from readers. Most of that came through phone calls, and after a while, emails became common. However, even years ago, the letters were treasured.
Most of the people who took the time to write me a letter — a personal letter, not something to be published on the opinion page — were complimentary. I started saving those, because they were special. The occasional nasty ones, usually unsigned, landed in the “round file.”
I began storing the letters that meant the most to me in a manila folder in a drawer where I could read them again on tough days. The fact that I preserved only about a dozen of them over a long career tells you how special they are.
Now, in retirement, life has slowed a bit, so my goal is to join that small group of dinosaurs willing to generate a letter now and then for someone else to file away. Those letters rejuvenated me not only on the day they were first opened, but again repeatedly in the years that have followed.
Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.