Letters: An Obituary

I have been writing and receiving email for more than 22 years. When I got started with email, it was manageable. I could read every message I received, and respond to it on the same day. Today it is impossible to keep up. I used to try, and it stressed me out when I fell behind. I don’t bother anymore. I do the best I can and if things fall through the cracks, so be it.

Every now and then, writing and reading email makes me years for good old-fashioned letters. I can’t remember the first time I wrote a letter, but it is now probably close to ten years since I’ve written—or received1—one. I loved letter writing. My most frequent correspondent was my grandfather. His letters were always great, and together our letters formed a leisurely dialog that took place over a period of months or years. This is opposite the rushed, terse conversations that take place in email messages.

Letter from Grandpa

Email lacks voice, and attempts to inject voice in email are often met with disdain or confusion. In letters, one could find a voice of one’s own, and hear the voice of one’s correspondent when reading their letters.

My grandfather’s letters came in two forms: handwritten, and typewritten. The handwritten letters were illegible, and it took me hours to parse my way through them. Eventually, I got good at reading his letters, although it has been so long that I am a bit out of practice today. For some reason, his typewritten letters were written in ALL CAPS. He used the Royal Quiet Comfort DeLuxe manual typewriter that I own today to compose these letters. Though I never asked him, I suppose he used ALL CAPS because it was easier on his eyes.

Receiving a letter in the mail was a delight. Anticipation of a letter was also a delight. I don’t know about you, but I don’t wake up in the morning in anticipation of the email that I’ll find in my inbox.

It occurs to my that my kids are likely to grow up not knowing what it is like to compose a letter, or to receive a letter in the mail. Already, they skip the email step and, when they want me to check with Kelly on some point they are contesting, they say, “Daddy, just text mommy, okay?”

Today, the idea of sending a letter seems quaint. There was a time, a decade ago, when some friends of mine moved back to their home state of North Dakota. For a while, we carried on a correspondence through the mails, even though we could have done so much more easily through email. Moreover, we wrote our letters longhand. Perhaps half a dozen letters passed between us before the correspondence faded. Facebook had arrived by then, and we had another way to follow one another’s lives. Almost overnight letters became obsolete.

I miss letters, writing them and receiving them. But I feel lucky to have lived through the final phase of their existence as a tool for keeping friends and family abreast of the goings-on in one’s life.

Letters still exist, of course. They will never completely die off. Still, the only letters I get these days are from banks, all of which seem to be trying to convince me to refinance my mortgage at a historical low rate—which turns out, suspiciously, to be higher than the rate I am currently paying.

For these letters, I think we can all agree, the time has come to lay them to rest.

  1. The exception is holiday letters, of which I still get one or two a year.

One comment

  1. I send letters to my godkids for this reason – I want them to have the experience, and I don’t know how much longer it will be possible.


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