letter writingOne of the odd little treasures we found amongst my late grandfather’s shelves full of esoteric bibliophilia was a book of his own creation: a binder full of letters he wrote to his synagogue over several months in 1993.

Grandpa was an avid letter writer, and we did found countless other loose missives amongst his papers, but this particular set was unique in that the letters—both those he wrote and the responses he received—are preserved in a chronological fashion, and when read in sequence, they tell a complete story.

It’s a somewhat ridiculous story, granted; it involves a dispute he had with the president of the congregation over a habit he and his buddies had of smuggling in a bottle of schnapps to enjoy together after morning prayers. But this dispute mattered to him, at least enough for him to save a record of it for all these years. And, subject matter notwithstanding, he truly was an excellent at writing letters.

It struck me when I read them what a lost art this is! I thought back to my own voluminous correspondences of the past year. If I discounted work-related emails, and articles I wrote for Teleread, how many of my emails would exceed 50 words? How many of them would, as Grandpa’s did, quote bible passages, snippets from great literature, or quotes from previous letters received from the person I was writing to? If I compiled them together, how many of them would tell a complete story more complex than ‘a history of the date and times we arranged to meet for coffee, with a bonus index of Starbucks locations where the meetings eventually took place’?

I wish all of his letters had been so well-organized. We saw a few he wrote to his sister-in-law in California, updating her on my Grandma’s health, on his children’s weddings and divorces, vacations, families, on his grandchildren and their growth and development. Alas, these were not so well-organized, and we lacked the time to find them all and put them into any order. We saw a few, written after his own father died, where he reminisced on his own childhood with this great-grandpa I barely knew, on the clothing store he had, on the advice had given his son when he set off on life’s great adventures. The best I have so far is an Evernote plug-in that automatically retrieves my Facebook status updates and saves them into a text file. It’s just not the same.

I hope that the art of writing doesn’t die with his generation. I fear that when today’s increasingly entrepreneurial generation thinks of writing, they think of writing which can be monetized. And that’s great—my bank account sure does not begrudge the bits I can bring in on the side through my freelance projects. But how many of us really take the time to keep a record of our lives that goes deeper than the status update level? Isn’t there—still—a value in that?

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  1. “…how many of us really take the time to keep a record of our lives that goes deeper than the status update level?” Your article seems to indicate that there isn’t anything in your life that goes deeper, so what is there to write about, much less keep a record of? Do you ever have email conversations that go on for some time, about subjects that are of interest to both parties? I do.

    What you’re really talking about is the shallowness of people’s lives, not their failure to write about it. And I question whether letter-writing, whether paper or pixels is in danger of disappearing. As for the record-keeping, there’s already too much emphasis on preserving trivia that’s of interest only to the individuals involved, and sometimes, to the scholars who build careers (and bank accounts) on the detritus of other people’s lives.

  2. No Catana, it really is the shallowness of the writing I am talking about. My life is plenty rich enough, thank you. What I think you are not understanding is the level of synthesizing that went into the kind of letters he wrote. He would refer back to letters a person had sent him years ago. He would quote from books and scripture. It was a level of compositional craftsmanship few of us engage in these days unless we are writing a formal speech—and he did it as part of his everyday life. That’s the loss of an era I am referring to.

  3. I think there were lots of shallow people in the past who never wrote a meaningful letter or diary after finishing school. Maybe they sent a short post card now and then. The shallow people don’t leave a record of their shallowness – and there has never been a shortage of them – but it isn’t evidence we’re more shallow now.

    People who do will in whatever format. My wife likes to write and will send massive emails to friends and family. Fifty years ago it would have been letters.

    Where there is a loss is in the loss of the physical format to the digital. Grandchildren probably will not search through grandma’s old email whereas they might have done so with old physical letters.

  4. Very clever post. Really makes you think whether some of us can appreciate the touch of paper anymore, or how the words and its history just flow from the page..

    Elaborate e-mails are fine to an extent. But, like books, there’s a level of intimacy with a written letter. You focus on it, you pay attention to it. With an e-mail, you can do five things at once and barely skim through what it’s trying to say — or how easily you can delete it. Plus there’s the argument about reading comprehension..

    But your post reminds me about the same thing with negatives and photo albums. An online slideshow is fine for some things, but there’s a special connection when people sit down together and share stories while looking through a photo album.

    Again, nice post!