"The writing of letters opens a breadth of human emotion not found in any other form of communication beyond art or the novel." Simon Garfield
How will we document the past in the future without an attic full of letters to pore over? That was one of the questions posed by the writer Simon Garfield as he and Shaun Usher, creator of the website Letters of Note, made a compelling case for the lost art of letter writing. Both have just released books that examine a history of correspondence, looking at how our methods of communication have changed with the digital age, and asking what we’ve lost in the process.
Ironically, as both admit, it’s the digital age that has allowed them to reach an audience of millions with correspondence deserving of a wider audience than The One each letter was originally written for. But in doing so, they are keeping alive a precious mode of conveying a deeper level of emotion than an email might ever convey.
Speaking at Bristol’s Festival of Ideas, Garfield and Usher went through a number of the letters they have either sourced, stumbled upon or been offered, by the famous, infamous and ordinary folk going all the way back to Egypt AD in one case, taking in an apparent love letter from Francis Ford Coppola to Fidel Castro, and a moving trail of letters exchanged by a couple in the Second World War for whom love blossomed over the pages before it arose in real life.
Through his Letters of Note website, which has attracted some 70 million viewers, Usher has resurrected over a thousand letters. The scrawled writing of Iggy Pop composing a heartfelt response to an emotionally fragile 21 year old fan, Stephen King describing a snow storm in his inimitable novelistic fashion, Gandhi appealing for calm to Hitler, Virginia Woolf’s heart-breaking suicide letter, so many more beautiful and wondrous notes in which each writer reveals something more of themselves between the words on the page.
Without this cache of correspondence, how might we peer into the lives of others? How will our grandchildren discover who we were and how we thought when all they will likely have is the polished document on a PC?
Flicking through the pages of a screen to read a person’s emails can surely never hold the same appeal as grasping preciously preserved notepaper in your hands, the same paper held by the writer, the ink deposited onto the page in an uninterrupted stream of emotional consciousness.
Referencing Ted Hughes, Garfield noted that Hughes resisted ditching his pen for the keypad because he didn’t believe that the brain to hand motion could flow in the same manner. A document created on a PC gives us the power to delete, reformulate and clean our communications in a way that robs expression of feeling and conceals the thought process that might tell a person so much more than the finished article.
The digital age has undoubtedly moved communications a thousand steps forward in terms of speed, but has quality and personality been sacrificed in the process? When an email pings into your inbox does it hold the same sway as when a letter drops you through your door? Or has the digital age simply increased the sense of urgency and productivity and taken from us the elongated thoughtful process of crafting our thoughts with the humble pen?
As Garfield recently noted in this Guardian article, the internet has killed the practice of letter writing, robbed us of love letters, along with the anticipation and delayed pleasure of receiving a heartfelt note that we might mull over. What a loss.