Am I the only one who finds that ironically amusing? Unnecessary repetition in a phrase being used to symbolize the need to strip away superfluous ornamentation and clutter? Perhaps Thoreau was just a student at the School of Redundancy School.

Anyway! I recently had an email correspondence with a former teacher in which she apologized a couple times for her “verbosity” – in this case, writing about three or four good-sized paragraphs per email. It wouldn’t have even been two pages of a book if printed out. I thought, what a shame it is that anyone should feel bad about expecting you to take a whopping several minutes of your day to read something they felt was important enough to share with you. It reminded me of something Susan Jacoby wrote:

E-mail, often cited as the savior of written communication and as a worthy successor to obsolete snail mail, has delivered the coup de grâce to the traditional letter.

…I know this because of the haste and inattentiveness with which my close friends and I approach the reading and writing of our own e-mail today. Neither I, nor anyone I know, turns to e-mail with anything like the sense of anticipation and pleasure that used to accompany my opening of the mailbox. How could we?

…When I receive an e-mail from someone dear to me, I am happy. But the contents usually amount to, “Hi, I was thinking about you when I read this article the other day,” followed by a link. And I answer in the same nondiscursive way. When I first went online, I was excited about e-mail because I thought it would replace the long letters I used to send and receive, but I soon found that lengthy e-mails elicited very brief responses – even when the person was someone who liked me or loved me. So I started replying in kind.

There undoubtedly are a few people who save their e-mail correspondence with good friends and who write e-mails as interesting as the letters many of us used to write during the snail-mail era. For the most part, though, e-mail as a medium really is the message – and the message is short.

I’ve always been one to put a lot of time and effort into my own emails, occasionally saying (and only partially joking) that I aim for them to be events. And I greatly prefer them to handwritten letters – my handwriting is terrible, for one thing, but also for the ability to easily choose aesthetic touches like color, font size and style, and especially for the ability to add hyperlinks, something that I think adds much more depth to an email that wouldn’t be possible in a traditional letter, unless you wanted to have endless footnotes and parenthetical asides, which I’ve always felt makes for a distracting reading experience. I have no problem with the medium at all; it’s just a question of how much effort you care to put into it. The majority of people I write to usually send back terse three-or-four line responses if they bother to respond at all, so I understand Jacoby’s frustration here, but it’s not a question of a monitor versus a piece of paper, or a keyboard versus a pen. My co-blogger Arthur and I have written some incredibly ostentatious emails just for the fun of writing and crafting them. The future may belong to the small mammals texting each other in their retarded lol-speak, but it’s still possible to be a big, plodding thesaurus-saurus and enjoy it. Just make the effort.

S.O.S. texted from a cell phone.
Please tell me I’m not the only one
that thinks we’re taking ourselves too seriously.
Just a little too enamored with inflated self-purpose.

Constant entertainment for our restless minds.
Constant stimulation for epic appetites.

Don’t lose touch.
— Against Me!

Of course, that raises the question of why no one ever makes the effort. Jacoby blames the “culture of distraction”, and I partially agree – the fun ‘n’ games aspect of our wired world certainly places a lot more demand on the attention of people with ever-shortening spans. Who wants to sit at the computer for forty-five minutes concentrating on communicating with one person when you could be instant-messaging several others rapid-fire while watching TV and listening to music in the background?

But the culture of work is where I would mostly look. She looks back fondly on her correspondence with her then-fiancé in the ’60s and is skeptical of the thought of a similar correspondence being possible today through email, but other, more important changes than the means by which we write to each other have occurred since then as well. It’s a cliché, but unfortunately no less true, that people are too busy working all the time to pay (with wages that have been stagnant since the early ’70s) for all the stuff they never have time to enjoy because they’re too busy working, and on and on in an Ourobouran frenzy. One of the greatest philosophers ever, Bill Watterson, noted this in a strip featuring Calvin’s dad, where he groused about how modern technology had only made people expect everything to get done instantaneously, and said that if we wanted more leisure time, we’d invent machines to do things less efficiently. With all the “labor-saving devices” we’ve invented in the last half-century or so, why are we all working longer hours for less money than ever before?

I would just suggest that it’s because few people take a reflective view on life, work and leisure. They never figure out a way to make time for those things, like good conversation and time to relax (not merely collapsing in a vegetative, catatonic state or an alcoholic stupor, but actually relaxing), and by the time they start to wonder how it could be done, they’ve probably got themselves stuck on the hamster wheel of working just a little longer to get a little extra money…only to realize that what was once just a temporary extra effort quickly becomes a required norm, especially once everyone else starts doing it too. Maybe Max Weber was on to something, and we’ve just thoughtlessly inherited a tradition of slaving away beyond all practical need to prevent idle hands from doing the devil’s work, or in the hopes of receiving some slight reassurance by means of material blessings that an insanely hateful, fickle God favored us for a trip to paradise. Maybe we just need to develop a stronger concept of art for art’s own sake in our notoriously practical, no-nonsense business-oriented culture, to do certain things just because they’re inherently fun and valuable, not as means to an end that never comes.