Introduction: Yes, There’s Still a Need for Letters
The art of general letter-writing in the present day is shrinking until the letter threatens to become a telegram, a telephone message, a post-card.
—Emily Post, Etiquette, 1922
“Do you know what ROFL stands for?” my mother asks. I can hear in her voice that she already knows the answer and is ready to boast about it.
“Rolling on the floor laughing!” Her animated reply practically sends her into the act she just described.
“How about LOL?”
“Laugh out loud!”
I felt silly for not knowing that one. “Well, if I had seen it written I would have known.”
She continued, “TTYL? Talk to you later. JK? Just kidding. GTG? Got to go.”
My mother is mastering this new language à la acronyms so she can communicate with my cousin Kimi. Thirteen-year-old Kimi is a quick draw—the fastest text messager east of the Hudson River. I imagine Kim trapped at a family event without her cell phone, unable to thumb-tap her way into the latest gossip circling among her friends—a tragic sight. I could tell her it won’t always be like that, but she’d never believe me. I could also tell her there once was a time when thirteen-year-old me had to endure family gatherings without instant access to my friends. Occasionally I could sneak off and use the phone, but it wouldn’t take long before the, “Samara, where are you?” horn started to sound. Kimi knows nothing of this. She can sit quietly in the room, seemingly with us, but really she’s at a friend’s house or the mall—talking newly formed crushes and horrid homework assignments.
It didn’t take long for my mother to savvy up and accept if she was going to get to know the newly minted teenaged version of her niece she would have to do it on Kimi’s terms—via computer or handheld gadget. Truthfully, I don’t know what I find more amusing: Kimi’s incessant IMing and texting or my mother’s foray into the new experience. She confesses, “It took me forever to get BRB (be right back) and BBL (be back later). Kimi uses these a lot, and I’d be stranded typing, ‘Kimi, what are you doing? Kimi, where are you? Kimi, why are you coming and going so much?’”
It may seem as though I’ve set this up as if I’m about to criticize the tenacity of technology and “kids today,” but that’s not the case. I completely understand and appreciate the need for shorthand and speed. If Friar Lawrence had had e-mail, Romeo and Juliet might have lived happily ever after. If Philippides had his cell phone on him, he could have called in the good news of the Athenian army defeating the Persians instead of running twenty-some miles back to Athens only to die of exhaustion when he arrived.
My concern is, though, that what we gain in speed we lose in language—and, just a reminder, we are the heirs of a resplendent language. English is curvaceous, complex, and beautiful. Fluent and fierce. She is the lover you will always adore but will never fully know because there’s too much to know. She is a true seductress—devious and overt, offering endless possibilities. With her I could tell you that you look gorgeous or that you look exquisite or that my body lost its breath when I happened upon you. When we encounter her placed in uncommon and alluring order we find inspiration and purpose. We find connection with ideas, with emotions, with people we know, with people we will never know, and with time periods that we must learn from and understand.
So I say yes, let’s be efficient—but let’s not squander our inheritance. Let the technology soar and improve, but let’s be careful not to assume the latest and greatest inventions will be around forever. They most likely will not. Let’s set time aside and allow our lovely language to bask in a place that has already proven its staying power: on paper. We must spread her out so that she can dazzle and breathe. Like all living things, if she does not breathe she will die.
How then do we keep her alive and healthy? We go back to the beginning. Before Blackberries, text messages, instant messages, cell phones, fax machines, computers, typewriters, telephones, and telegraphs. We go back to a time when there were two things: language and paper. For writers, that combination equaled novels and articles. For the lovelorn it equaled poetry. For mathematicians and scientists it was a place to work out equations and take copious notes. For monks it was a place to copy scripture. But for all these types as well as the man on the street and the woman by the window, the person who just had a message to send, language plus paper equaled letters. And letters eventually equaled evidence. Evidence that they existed. That they breathed. That they had good insights and bad days. That they loved. That they suffered. That they longed. That they had moments of certifiable insanity. That they were selfish. And that, sometimes, they were satisfied. We must make arrangements for our descendants to discover us in such a candid way.
What brought us closer to the Holocaust but the diary and letters of a headstrong teenager who was forced to experience the changes of her body, frequent fights with her father, and the confusion of first love all in the confines of a stuffy attic? I remember reading years ago as one clever journalist named Anne Frank Hitler’s greatest enemy.
What is the New Testament of The Bible really, but the selected letters of a few passionate young men excited to spread the message of their newfound faith? What woman doesn’t swoon at the idea alone of a love letter written by Casanova or Valentino? And what person wouldn’t find fascinating new insights into their favorite writer, philosopher, or politician when reading a collection of their letters?
On a recent trip to Nashville, I visited a historic home called the Belle Meade Plantation. Originally built in 1853, the astonishing home is filled with antiques and an acute sense of lives lived long ago. We were told that the house was restored to its original paint colors because they had found letters written by the mistress of the home delineating her plans to decorate. The mistress also wrote about the daily goings on in her daughter’s life, which at one point involved entertaining 22 young gentlemen suitors who came to call (at the same time!). We might not find our everyday lives too fascinating but our great-grandchildren will, and I’d much rather have them unfold a dusty sample of my enduring words than Google me.
Now, it’s understandable if your children’s children’s children aren’t the first thing on your mind in the morning—so don’t write letters for them (just make sure you leave letters for them to find). Write letters for the people who are on your mind. Who are always on your mind. For the new love and the old friend. Thank the coworker who went out of her way to help you get adjusted. Empathize with your neighbor who just lost her son. Appease your wife after an unnecessary fight. Tell your husband about all the ways he still turns you on. Letters give messages backbone. They deliver what’s written and they silently confess, “To me, you are worth the inconvenience of writing this letter.”
Letters not only solidify history and fortify everyday events but they enact political change. Amnesty International (amnestyusa.org) has used letters to plead on behalf of human rights for over 40 years, which is especially important in countries where Internet access is not readily available. The Global Aids Alliance Web site (globalaidsalliance.org) also asks its visitors to write letters to local government officials and heads of states. They offer e-mail as an option but suggest that printed letters send a stronger message. They provide form letters but also implore, “Please write your own letter—your words are more powerful than a form letter!”
And that is what I’d like you to take away from this book—an appreciation for how powerful your words are. How powerful our language is and how effective the two can be in tangible form. Letters instigate understanding, change, and closure. Letters are a chance for all of us to live well beyond our allotted years. They can and will affect the recipient, but what’s oftentimes greater (and more surprising) is the effect letters have on the writer—who may be coming face to face with his or her thoughts and feelings for the first time. Letters have been performing acts—both ordinary and extraordinary—for several hundred millennia and I’d like to make sure they continue to do so.
I’ll admit my fear of losing letters may be unfounded. As you saw above, Emily Post had the same fear in 1922 and letters are still with us, to a certain extent anyway. Just to be on the safe side, though, I’ll sit Kimi down and explain everything to her, and she can explain what the heck BICBW* means.
* Because I could be wrong