When was the last time you wrote — (yes, by hand, using a pen) — a letter or note on a piece of paper, let alone chose a lovely card or piece of quality stationery? Foolscap, notebook pages, the back of a receipt or a Post-It note do not count!
Did you put a stamp on it and mail it to someone: a business associate, a former professor or mentor, your sweetie or mom or nephew or former college room-mate?
When was the last time you received a card or letter and ripped open that paper envelope, wondering who had been so thoughtfully old-school to choose it, write it, buy a stamp, find your mailing address and, in time for an occasion, send it to you?
Here’s a recent op-ed in The Guardian making the same argument in favor of paper-based communication:
A letter is a letter no matter whether it lands on the doormat or pings into your electronic inbox.
Actually, though, there is a difference and it is one that worries historians like myself who spend their days combing the correspondence of ordinary people written 150 years ago. The protocols that govern letter-writing mean that even the simplest of communications come packed with extra bits of information that never make it into an email. “A … letter, should be loose, cover much ground, run swiftly, take risk of mortality and decay,” Saul Bellow once wrote – and while most peoples’ communications don’t quite match up to these exacting standards, they do strive to do more than simply arrange where to meet tonight, FYI, or chortle over last night’s debauch down the pub, WTF. Even the most listless letter-writer generally includes a bit about how they are physically and emotionally, a snapshot of their recent activities, a nod towards future holiday plans and a final comment on the state of the nation.
To a historian this stuff is gold dust. For buried away in the interstices of the most apparently banal note you will find all sorts of data, not just about how people lived, loved, ate and dressed a century ago, but – and this is the important bit – what they thought and felt about it all. Letters are a prompt to reflection and what cultural critics call “self-fashioning”. Put bluntly, we get to know who we are and what we think by writing about it to other people.
I recently had major surgery and cannot adequately describe the pleasure, comfort and moral support I got from the many cards and notes I received, whether slid beneath my apartment door by neighbors, sent from old pals in Canada or mailed by members of our church.
(I loved getting e-cards, too.)
But, years from now, when I sort through my papers — literally — these pretty, physical, time-specific memories will fill my hands: Valentine’s, birthdays, weddings, condolence, congratulations.
Here’s a link to 30 gorgeous modern thank-you notes, from one of my favorite daily blogs, Design Milk.
Especially at times of sorrow and stress, a thoughtful, personal note on lovely paper is an air-borne hug.
Here’s a great story from NBC Nightly News about why sending cards matters so much.
And a year-old blog devoted to saving the use of snail mail.
Writing a novel? Here’s a fascinating argument by one writer why writing letters is so beneficial to writers of fiction.
Mail one today!