Letters in the age of e-mail

I wrote a letter this weekend, the old-fashioned way.  Pen to paper.  I even dragged out an old box of  parchment paper that had been gathering dust.  The act was not spontaneous: the letter was requested by a friend who’s at a writing retreat for two months.
    It felt good.  I wrote five pages, and my handwriting was not as bad as I feared it might be. I enjoyed the feel of the envelope in my hand as I trudged down to the mailbox.
    Letter writing in the age of e-mail, some say, is a lost art; they bemoan the loss of feeling as pen scratches away at paper or the dreamy stare into space as you compose your feelings into words.
    I’m not so sure.  The greater pleasure may be felt by the one who receives.  To open your mailbox and see — in the thicket of bills, junk mail, and magazines — an envelope addressed by hand bearing a familiar name, then tearing it open as you retreat into your home, the thrill is all there.  It is that which I miss.

The first letters I recall receiving were from my brother who had left Dhaka for the U.S. in 1965.  The letters to and from him from Mother carried serious news and story.  The ones from us children tended to be requests for magazine subscriptions, the only material gift that had a chance of making it through the post.  Aware that he was a struggling student, our appeals carried justifications why I had to have Radio Electronics or my brother Autocar.
    Letters carried weight once the war broke out against Pakistani occupation.  I had some contacts abroad and the first letter I wrote and smuggled out of the country was a detailed description of the cruel fate that had befallen our city.  Letters became a more personal lifeline after I became a refugee in Calcutta.  They were the only way our family, scattered now in India, occupied Bangladesh, and the U.S., kept touch.  Two friends from London who I had known before the war wrote.  Someone cared: it was good to know this when the idea that life had any meaning was daily challenged.
    Then I came to the U.S. myself and it was my turn to pen letters to keep in touch with those back home.  A woman I had been fond of, writing from her hostel room at the university, kept me informed about what was happening in the new country.  
    Meanwhile, letters from my mother brought the picture of the new woman she had become after independence, involved in rural health care.  Our letters, in Bangla, kept me in touch with my mother tongue.  Two things stand out from these letters: her constant admonitions to eat and our banter about  religion.  Then she died, way before it was fair for her to be taken, and I miss her letters.
    Letters were the channels of love.  One intense summer, letters went back and forth between Oklahoma and Kansas, as often as three times a week.  I looked forward to that letter carrier, and the fatness of each small white envelope would promise how big a morsel of pleasure I was to receive.
    Letters also assaulted and killed relationships, as feelings of outrage and judgement spread out from my pen and went forth to bewilder and hurt my recipients.  The folly of youth, I can now see, but most of those wounds were never healed.
    Happily, love letters, romantic and platonic, continued.  Even as late as the summer of 1992, I remember letters with the implicit message of love being sent off, completing long phone conversations that had to be cut off because too many hours had already been spent on them.
    Then before we were fully aware of it, we emerged into the epoch of e-mail.
    E-mail was simply wonderful, allowing new contact, renewed connections, thoughtful exchanges of information, story, and feeling.  It was one exchange of e-mails, nearly 500 pages of single-spaced text when printed out, carried out over an eight-month period, that tipped me over into creative writing.
    I continued to write letters, but letters became avenues of communication when others had failed.  When e-mail and phone calls would not extract the right sort of response, letters became a way to convey a deeper emotion.  But perhaps they merely tried to have the last word on some hurt feeling.
    One such letter came back: "Return to sender."  It was just as well.  Curiously it would be e-mail that restored that friendship.
    There were unsent letters too, written in the fever of insomnia, trying to understand what was going on, but more to have the chance to put down one’s own feelings.  Since they dripped far too much with self-pity, they were never sent.
    For me, e-mail has been a nearly complete substitute for old-fashioned letters.
    Instead of waiting for the post, I have woken up in the morning to see if there is an e-mail waiting for me, written from time zones where my morning has been another’s end of day. And e-mail, coming any hour of the day or night, at times stuffed me to the point of gluttony.
    And yet, have we not all regretted the ease with which we can hit the send button?  With a letter, you can change your mind before you drop it into the mailbox.
    I do not miss the feel of pen to paper because for the last 14 years, even the letters I wrote were written on computers.  A wrist injury had made it too difficult to write long letters by hand.
    I can, when I want to, write long letters by e-mail.  E-mail is often used as a sort of text messaging.  Such exchanges preserve contact or exchange information, but they don’t do much beyond that.
    In the age of e-mail, a few people have asked for old-fashioned correspondence.  But for some reason, these exchanges fizzled out. I don’t know what to make of this.
    E-mail has even one advantage over letter writing: you can keep a copy of the letter you wrote.  A few years ago, I went through a box of old letters and it was great to see a friend as how she used to be.  I regretted that I was not able to see my own letters to her.  But this may be more interesting to a writer than others.
    I do sometimes worry that letters may last longer than digitized text.  When we die, our e-mail exchanges may vanish into thin air, other than perhaps in the archives of Yahoo or Google or, if friends store such things, in their own storage.  But as a simple correspondent, that feels like an academic sort of worry, best left to biographers and historians.
    Yet…. after surveying the last forty years of letters and e-mail, and nearly convincing myself of all the rational arguments that suggest e-mail is merely the latest means for letter writing, why do I still feel a different sort of thrill when there is a handwritten letter in the mailbox?  Could it simply be that a letter can be touched, that it is physical, that it is like the ability to touch a friend’s hand? Is it the joy of surprise? Or simply memory evoking nostalgia?

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4 Comments

  1. Anjali

    I think it is the materiality of the letter that makes it so attractive– and important. I have letters that were written to me from over thirty years ago, and even though some are in tatters, it is still almost a thrill to handle them and read them.

    In today’s age of online insubstantial exchanges, letters help make the conversations we have had seem more momentous, more significant.

    That said, I am also one of those who write fewer and fewer letters even as I beg my friends to write me one. For me, it is the mailing part of the letter that is tedious and forbidding. Can’t be organized enough to have envelopes, stamps, etc at hand when I need them.

    By the way, am I the only one who has seen that Americans write more cards/letters than do the subcontinentals? Or is this confirmed by others’ experience as well?

  2. kristin

    I have boxes of old letters too. Sometimes I start going through them, planning to throw some away since they are not from my near and dear but I get side tracked reading them and usually end up stuffing them back in the file drawer or box.

    I used to write a lot of long letters and then lots of long email but over the years it’s become a line or two instead of the pages it used to be. I write fewer people, and those I write also write very short emails.

    In an effort to get back to both sending and receiving long correspondence, I have started making cards, writing in them and sending them off to children, grandchildren and aunts. The first week it went well. The second week, not so much. This week, I have four cards sitting here but haven’t written anything except on pathetic card. One problem is that I’m getting phone calls in return instead of letters so I say everything I would say on paper on the phone. Maybe I’ll have to quit talking on the phone.

  3. Jim

    Yes, the material existence of old letters gives a special value and sometimes the only evidence that such thoughts ever existed. My substitute use of e-mail has now completely replaced handwriten letters in my life and much is lost.

    A close friend, the poet Charles David Wright, and I used to handwrite each other frequently and at great length. When he died tragically he left an unfinished book, unpublished drafts of poems, unfinished articles, and much correspondence. His university archived his “papers,” gathered by his wife Ruth. She had requested and I send back all of Chuck’s correspontence to add to the rest. Later I visited the university library just to check up on their preservation of Chuck’s “papers.” It was such a pleasure to see my bundles of letters from him and mine to him preserved there. We had talked over our reading, our emergent socialist thinking, played with words, and in other ways “corresponded.”

    As Mahmud says, “I do sometimes worry that letters may last longer than digitized text.” My experience is that they do indeed last longer. I cannot now recover any of the early e-mails sent or received that in the 80’s came to replace my use of handwritten or typed letters. Maybe it is just ego (no preservation, no materiality) but my personal correspondence is nothing to what it once was.

  4. Tahmina

    A beautiful piece.
    I have not written letters in ages, nor have I received any. IT has taken over us, all that we are left with is the dry dissemination of information and plain messages. Just the other day, my office e-mail crashed, all my e-mails vanished in a second.
    Apart from the fact that you can hold letters close to you, there is also this beauty about handwritten letters- the dainty sheets of paper, the folds, the scent of the writer, the envelope. Handwritings are so unique to each individual and there is a certain warmth that it conveys. Typed writings are all the same- flat and plain. Yet, we switch to e-mails and never bother writing letters- perhaps because in many ways, this age has also taught us to be distant and fast paced.
    This piece reminded me of those long letters I had once received- they were truly so much more valuable than any of the e-mails that I have in my mail box!

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