One of my very favourite possessions is a book called ‘Letters of Note’ by Shaun Usher. Should I find myself in the unfortunate (and surprising) predicament of being stranded on a desert island, it is surely one of the things I would wish to have with me, along with Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘In the Aeroplane over the sea’, a picture of my family and, I guess, a boat (this is obviously not a considered list).
Effortlessly living up to it's billing of ‘correspondence deserving of a wider audience’, the book contains copies and transcripts of letters throughout history. From rock stars to royalty, slaves to presidents, it includes penned thoughts from our most celebrated icons as well as unknown everymen with something to say.
It is a stunning and profound work that I pick up again and again. It still induces tears and laughter, wonder and whimsy. And, as the art of letter writing dwindles and dies, it is a dignified and powerful reminder of what the world is losing.
Much like other pastimes our children will barely be able to fathom (such as the pre-google concept of being content with ‘not knowing’ the answer to something) technology holds the smoking gun. Taking its place is text, email, social media…channels that allow us to stay in touch and give some sense of connection, but predispose us to constant and instant (rather than periodic and thoughtful) communication. Not for nothing that ‘yours sincerely…’ is acquainted with the pen more than the keyboard.
Social media is of course a different beast than traditional correspondence – it’s more akin to shouting out unfiltered opinions in the street. Often, inevitably, met with unfiltered responses. I recently read an article by columnist Peter Osborne where he spoke of the numerous wonderful and piercing letters received in response to his various columns over the years. In it, he observes:
“I can’t help comparing these handwritten letters to the comments that readers now place at the bottom of online articles. Raucous, angry and semi-literate, the prevailing tone of a great deal of the online conversation is essentially barbarous.”
This online conversation is shaped by its open-door policy - connecting anonymous people while alleviating the burden of social accountability.
I’ll avoid taking a tangent into the various perils of online debate, though it does strike me as poignant that in the past children were encouraged to have pen pals - nowadays the notion of parents encouraging their children to communicate with a total stranger is incomprehensible.
As well as changing the kind of relationships we have with our peers, it’s also changing the language we use to communicate. Teachers tell of receiving essays littered with text-speak.
Mst B profoundly depressing 4 an educator 2C stdnts devolving b4 their eyes.
(N.B. In order to get ‘the lingo’ right in the above sentence, I googled whether there was a website that could translate normal written English into text-speak. Sadly, of course there is. A ‘resource’ that will educate you in how to write worse English. What a time to be alive.)
Though I grew up writing, I did not grow up writing letters. I suspect the challenge of obtaining stamps and the general vagaries of the postal system were simply too much for my infantile mind to approach, let alone overcome.
But when my first son was born I resolved to write him a letter each year on his birthday. The plan is to save them up until he’s 18, then present him with a box of letters that tell the story of his life (and a good portion of mine). When my second son was born 2 years later I made the same promise.
Two letters a year – a meagre amount but the closest thing to a diary I’ve ever kept. As I write each letter I think about what it will be like for them to open it years down the line, to get another insight into our family, into their youth, to learn a little more about their father.
I ask myself what should I include? How much detail should I go into? Can I make them laugh? Should I leave out the sad stuff? I have to force myself to sit quietly in a room with a pen and some paper and think about what I’m writing.
Lord Byron once remarked that letter writing is the only device combining solitude with good company. The concept of solitude is particularly interesting in this creative context – he was referring to being alone, but today solitude would require us to go ‘off-grid’, if only temporarily.
There is simply no way I could write a thoughtful letter in my usual connected state; my technology-dependant brain would frantically seek out the dull distracting glow of multiple glass screens. My mac is a portal to the full distracting force of the Internet. My iPhone yaps at me with emails, texts, social media, news alerts.
Embracing solitude – if only twice a year - is a liberating experience. I get lost in the process; time seems to pass slowly and quickly all at once. It feels good for my soul, good for my brain. My thoughts can focus on one task, and do it well.
Each time, a single, perfect letter that will enjoy more permanence that any casual electronic dalliance. To a child that can’t yet read, about a time they won’t remember, by a younger man than they will recognise.
Written for them, by me.
Photo Credit: Imgarcade