Not long ago, my 25-year-old son told me something I never thought I’d hear from him. He wanted to write to a female friend he’d met recently in Portugal, but there was an obstacle in his way called technology. He wrote to her by email, and she replied, and then he wrote again, all within a day. But this was not a satisfying exchange; it was just too damn quick. What he envisaged when he first thought of writing was a genuine meeting of minds, a Henry Miller/Anaïs Nin or Kingsley Amis/Philip Larkin kind of thing. Perhaps romance would blossom, and perhaps it wouldn’t, but at least there would be some time to mull things over a little bit in an intelligent way.
Fat chance. He soon found that email, wonderful thing that it is in so many ways, is rather too instant for gestation and deeper thoughts amassed over time; wait a week to return an email and people think you’re dead. And so my son’s relationship with his potential new friend petered out as quickly as it formed. He could, of course, have maintained the correspondence the way we’ve done it for a handful of years before email – pen, paper, envelope, stamp, postal system – but he’s 25, busy with filmmaking, and the thought of spending money on a stamp and then having to catch the last post had long ago begun to seem rather Victorian to him.
He told me this story when I was almost at the end of my new book about the history of letter-writing, and, magpies that writerly fathers are, I couldn’t help but put it in the epilogue. The ability to correspond slowly was another important thing sacrificed to brilliant technology. I added it to the list of other things we stand to lose when we abandon letters: an ability for secret intimacy; an ability to document our personal history in a meaningful way (more meaningful than just arrangements and links to cute cat vids); an ability to uncover secrets in attics years later; an appreciation of the beautiful – lovely paper, careful handwriting, emotion on a page that may be treasured or burnt.
Everyone writes a letter differently; everyone writes an email that looks the same. Fairly obvious really, and this has clearly been a slow decline over two decades. In To The Letter I wanted to emphasize how important this transition really is. I argue that it’s the biggest loss of the digital revolution, more significant than the loss detailed in my last two books about typefaces and maps.
So what will we miss most? And what will I miss most?
Love letters, obviously. Partly this is because I’m very happily married, so no new love letters for me beyond fuzzy things from my wife in birthday cards. But I really mean the idea of love letters, and their memory. My book is a trail of passion from the 12th century onwards, taking in misbehaving nuns, errant cartoonists and smitten poets, and you’ll detect their moistness on every page. There’s also a compelling (I hope) sequence of letters written during the Second World War that tracks the beginning of a beautiful and lasting relationship (I know it endured, because I obtained the letters from the correspondents’ son.) Could they have written the way they did by email? No. Personally I’m just glad that I still have letters in shoeboxes from former beaus – almost all of which I will probably never read again. But like those kisses on the bottom, I’m glad I got ‘em.
Soon I think we will even write condolence letters by email or text. This is the last empire to crumble, and most of us have the good sense to mark a death by getting out the envelopes. But for how much longer? I’ll give it a decade or two before people start sending ‘so sorry to hear’ from a tablet. And then it will become socially acceptable, and we’ll shrug and say how much easier and certain it is, what with postal deliveries not being what they were etc.
Condolence letters were where it really began for me with letters. My dad died 40 years ago when I was 13, and that’s the first flood of post I can remember, jamming our thin letterbox in the weeks after his death with Basildon Bond and slightly perfumed pastel-colored rectangles. Many of them said very similar things, but that wasn’t the point: the point was that friends had made the effort to sit down and gather kind thoughts about someone they loved or admired, and then wrote about him in a personal way in their own unpixelated hand. Touch has a memory. I still have those letters.