Lamenting the late, great letter

I used to write letters all the time, in lieu of a diary, and expect reciprocation. It all seems rather quaint today, when some would rather stick needles in their eyes than have to read beyond a Tweet.

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Does anyone still write letters? Perhaps this period of loneliness and isolation is a good time to restart.

I used to write letters all the time, in lieu of a diary, which seemed uncool. When I had something to say, I would choose one of my dozen or so great friends and put inkjet to paper. I made efforts to compose with care, as for an article in today’s Times of Israel.

I would print two copies, not thinking about the planet or the trees. One was folded and placed inside an “envelope,” which was affixed with “stamps” and sent by “airmail” to its unsuspecting destination. The other was furtively added to a binder.

Over time, around the mid-1990s, airmail was replaced by email, so just one printout was required.

Because of the nature of emails I also began to send them to more than one person. With hindsight, I know now that this shift was the beginning of the scourge — the innocent-seeming harbinger of a letter-destroying, society-distorting and soul-crushing storm.

I noticed the multiple-addressee policy sometimes caused offence which yielded snarky and even hostile replies. I see the long-gone upside now: people wanted their own letters! That seems rather quaint today, when some would rather stick needles in their eyes than have to read beyond a Tweet.

The binders still exist, though the pre-laser printer ink is fading. They form a record of my memories: the different societies I lived in as a foreign correspondent, the birth of my first daughter and the amazing thoughts and feelings that begat, little philosophies and grand designs. I consult these documents still, sometimes; late at night, when no one sees.

The letters peter out to a ignoble, whimpering end. There is something sad about the last of the letters. I know exactly which it is. But I can hardly bear to think of it, as of a loved one who has left this mortal coil (it was not at all Shakespearian; I just like the #[email protected]^ phrase).

That dates to around the time my second daughter was born, almost two decades ago. It is no fault of hers, poor thing. The thoughts and feelings she generated were every bit as profound. But the idea of sending a letter about it just got too damn bizarre.

I loved those letters though. I loved writing them and even more so receiving replies, from those who bothered, until reciprocity died out as well.

The world is a paradox, here in 2020. For the first time in history, it may literally be the best of times and the worst of times. Few bother to do so but once must focus on the glass half full (as Dickens would; or would he?).

Still I’m troubled by the whole thing. So I sat down to figure out what’s going on. Here’s what I came up with:

  • The kinds of people who might write a letter are mostly busy all the time. Quite often they are busy spinning their wheels at 24/7 jobs. Or they have demanding families (a phenomenon that has strangely increased). Or they have lost their minds, an epidemic of our age. So we must be efficient. An audience of one is inefficient.
  • Put another way, we are living in a multilateral time. A letter is a bilateral construct. The gig economy somehow attaches to this: we are now promiscuous, whereas a letter is somehow chaste.
  • The digital epoch is the era of scale. Take your great idea to venture capitalists and they will instantly inquire: Does it scale? A letter does not scale. Content sent to one person generates no traffic. Are you a Luddite? If you are, you’ll write a letter.
  • An audience of one is also private. It does not serve our personal brand, at least not efficiently, at scale. This is the era of the personal brand. We must build it, nurture it, preserve it. Some do it with emojis and images of dinner plates (and to me, if they’re over 19, that’s rather sad); but at least they have a brand.
  • So on the occasions that we have thoughts, be they trivial or grand, we post them on social media. To then also send them to a friend bilaterally is to repeat oneself, for fur surely the friend is on social media as well.
  • But will the friend see it in the feed? Not clear, but we can hope. We look for clues in the likes, like pathetic, needy saps. We soon identify those friends who don’t react, and this might make them lesser friends.
  • That is the true micro-aggression of those who minimize use of Facebook; they have good reason to be sure, but it feels like an affront. That is how dependent we’ve become.
  • But speaking of aggressions: If despite all this you do dare to send a letter (even if by email), you can just imagine the sighing. The recipient will calculate the time needed to read it (Over 900 words? A four-minute read!) and curse the obligation to reply. Does the friend even have any thoughts with which to do it? They certainly have no time.
  • Ah, but that’s not half as bad as the unplanned phone call — the inappropriate cold call not set up in advance and not confirmed on Google Calendars. In a world of micro-aggressions, that there is the macro.

Wait! Does writing these pieces qualify as being of a piece? I think it might; in fact I definitely think it does.

Might the whole thing net positive? Could this be a terrible thing that is needed to beget a good and necessary thing, like the smartphone or the IRS? I don’t rule this out.

Where does this situation leave the love letter? I honestly do not know.

Arcade Fire, one of the few contemporary acts that might be remembered beyond our lifetimes, put it this way in their masterpiece of an “album” The Suburbs:

I used to write
I used to write letters
I used to sign my name
I used to sleep at night
Before the flashing lights settled deep in my brain.

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