It’s a sad truth that few of us, nowadays, write letters. Indeed, it’s tempting to think of handwritten letters as having been superseded by email in the same way that vinyl records were supplanted by CDs. The problem with this tidy progress narrative is that it overlooks the qualities that still make handwritten letters so special.
As long ago as 1994, when the internet was for nerds only and mobile phones drew chuckles in restaurants, the American academic Sven Birkerts noticed that ‘a finely filamented electronic scrim has slipped between ourselves and the so-called “outside world”’. In his brilliant book The Gutenberg Elegies, published that year, he warned against the ‘ersatz security of a vast lateral connectedness’ and the loss of what he called ‘duration experience’ – ‘that depth phenomenon we associate with reverie’. The way to combat this, he suggested, was to train ourselves to read deeply so that we attained the ‘slow and meditative possession of a book’.
A necessary complement of reverie-driven deep reading must be deep writing. But doing this properly does involve an element of willed time travel. As recently as a hundred years ago, people wrote (and thought, and felt, and existed) differently because they had a radically different concept of space and time. Handwritten letters of the quality and length routinely produced by, say, Ralph Waldo Emerson or his transatlantic pen pal Thomas Carlyle would have taken a whole evening, maybe even several days to craft and were the function of an isolation it’s almost impossible for us to understand.
Before our lives filled up with static, we used letters to unjumble thoughts and generally reflect on our lives in tranquil seclusion, in time we had set aside for the purpose. Read Charles Lamb’s letters to his school friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, especially the ones written after his sister Mary’s committal to an asylum – she killed their mother with a kitchen knife – and it’s obvious Lamb is using the correspondence to work through what is acceptable (and bearable) to feel and say. Letters help to regulate emotion and keep the brain well tempered.
Regain the habit of long-form letter-writing and you slow the world down – with all the therapeutic benefits you’d expect. Besides which, letters have a glorious materiality. They are complex packets of visual and tactile stimuli: ink, paper, handwriting, drawings, marmalade splodges, lipstick… As John Donne observed: ‘Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle souls/For thus friends absent speak.’
John O’Connell is the author of ‘I Told You I Was Ill: Adventures in Hypochondria’ (Short Books, 2005), ‘The Midlife Manual’ (2010) and the novel ‘Baskerville’ (2011). He will be drawing on insights from his new book, 'For the Love of Letters The Joy of Slow Communication' (Short Books, November 2012) on Wednesday 12th December. For more details about the event and to book click here.
Follow his blog at: joyofslowcommunication.com