Even when you’ve got hold of it, e-mail—so often dashed off in place of a phone call—rarely achieves a high literary standard. And it almost never supplies the biographically useful details that letter-writing did back when the contents of a sealed envelope were the best means of communication over a long distance.
Although nothing stings quite like being “flamed” over the e-waves, Mallon mourns the passing of the handwritten, or even hand-typed, letter—whether loving or vicious. “The glaze of impersonality over what pops up on that computer screen” spoils what once was the thrill of learning to “recognize the quirks of a person’s typing, and typewriter” or a new friend’s handwriting, which “has an intimacy and force that can never be matched.” Never mind biographers; all of humanity will lose something incalculable as letters—those “tactile couriers”—vanish, to be replaced with “uniform pixels on a monitor.”
Mallon quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson’s definition of the letter as “a kind of picture of a voice.” Handwriting, even if simply a signature scrawled at the bottom of a typed page, has always been part of that picture. Some of Mallon’s correspondents, like WWI poet Wilfred Owen, considered letters an embodiment of the letter writer. “It seems wrong,” Owen wrote to his mother from the front in January 1917, “that even your dear handwriting should come into such a Gehenna as this.” It’s hard to feel the same way about e-mail, IM, or a text message. No matter how you receive it, an electronic transmission, with “Forward” just a click away, can never seem as personal, private, or real as a handwritten letter meant for you alone.
I’ve written sympathetically before about the tendency to cling protectively to one’s aesthetic preferences in the face of seemingly inevitable “progress”, whether it be people who will always prefer books to Kindles, or hard copies of music to mp3s. So, sure, if you honestly get a tactile thrill from the idiosyncrasies of someone’s handwriting on paper, more power to you.
But when oh when are we ever going to stop hearing this mindless romantic complaint about how email isn’t as authentic as pen on paper? Why stop there? Why isn’t quill and parchment more “real”? What about papyrus for all the anti-paper snobs? Cuneiform script on clay tablets with a reed stylus?
Once again, shallow romantics perceive essence where there is only form. There is nothing inherent in the medium of email that prevents users from creating interesting letters full of wit and personality, addressed affectionately to people they know well. I do it all the time with friends. And I also have old handwritten letters from friends that aren’t all that interesting, written in that stilted, uncomfortable style of those who don’t spend a lot of time cultivating and expressing interesting thoughts. It’s not the tools you use, it’s the effort you put into the work. Don’t shoot the instant messenger.
Speaking of work, it bears repeating: one thing that has changed in the last few decades is the fact that more people have to work longer hours for declining wages at less rewarding jobs. Thus, all we do with our “labor-saving” devices is use the little bit of time we save to cram in more work in the vain hope of getting ahead — or, as the case may be, just trying to stay level. And so we see thunderfuckingly stupid products like this made available. In that sense, I can’t really blame people for feeling like they don’t have the time to make emails into an entertaining event. While myopic aesthetes are sniffling about our declining literary standards, a ravenous all-business-no-pleasure culture is devouring and excreting everything of value it gets its claws into.
One thing you can fairly say about our emails, texts, cell phones, Twitter accounts, etc. is that they’ve done away with what I would call the formality and ritual that formerly accompanied letter-writing. You used to have to set aside a certain amount of time and effort to do nothing else; you couldn’t exactly be writing a letter while cradling a kid under one arm and stirring dinner with your hand, all while balancing a corded phone on your shoulder. Now you can put on your Bluetooth headset and send quick messages on your iPhone, which is connected to the Internet and more powerful than the desktop computer you had ten years ago. Like I keep saying, it’s not impossible to sit down and concentrate on nothing else but typing a worthwhile email. It’s just that the ever-increasing pace of modern life makes it so that you have to dig in your heels to do it. Our gadgets have made it so that personal communication, something that used to require a little special time and focus, is now just another mindless chore to be done as quickly as possible so that we can chase the next shiny object. And even if you don’t want to be that way, the fact that everyone else does it means that you either grudgingly join in or find yourself getting left behind in various ways, some of them financially uncomfortable.
This is where we leave behind the nitpicking over technological minutiae and get into questions of human nature: why are we so easily bored, constantly seeking novelty and stimulation? Why is it so difficult to have a philosophical sense of when enough is enough? Why don’t we see that, despite all the rhetoric equating increased consumer choice with freedom, it ironically traps us in different types of anxieities and status games we can never win? Buddhist writers talk a lot about mindfulness, the need to cultivate a sense of how to just be, how to exist in this moment. Focus on what’s right in front of you right now, whatever that may be, no matter how mundane you think it is. Focus on the person you’re having a conversation with, pay attention to them like you’ve got nothing else to do, don’t spend your time craning your head to look over their shoulder, hoping to see something more interesting happening somewhere else. Carry that around with you, and you’ll be surprised how you can find profundity and meaning even in the midst of what you’ve been conditioned to see as a sterile wasteland.