Died….the art of writing letters!!

It was something that all of us eagerly awaited as the postman would come riding on his bicycle ringing the bell announcing his arrival into the ‘mohalla’ (neighborhood)….it was the arrival of a letter from a relative or a close friend giving us news and updates on the family developments. The envelope would arrive with the address painstakingly handwritten and the stamp with the Mahatma Gandhi’s head always evenly placed in the top right-hand corner.

My last hand written letter was some 15 years back when I had been just married and had shifted to Indonesia to take up a new assignment whilst my wife was in India waiting for her papers to be cleared to join me. My wife and I would regularly exchange letters for the brief period of 3 months that we were apart and there was certainly a lot of thought and feeling that went into each word and sentence. It wasn’t simple to undo what was written as there was no delete button which would erase and leave no traces of what was written earlier. Reading the letters from my wife I could make out her emotions when she was penning down her thoughts….it was all reflected in the letter….the fonts, the pressure of the pen on the paper, the slant…each of them would reveal her thoughts and moods. There were no OMG or LOL, no smiley icons. Just plain words.

Soon I was introduced to emails and I could write out a message to her which eliminated the need for envelopes, stamps, letter boxes and it contained a wonderful feature called ‘spell check’……wow! I could even have the leisure of saving a draft of the letter and amending it later (without leaving any traces). But, at the end of it all the satisfaction did not come to me….it all seemed very mechanical and lacked the character. Yes, e-mail is a wonderful invention. It links people across the world, destroying in an instant the hurdle of geography that confronts snail mail. Yet it is by its nature ephemeral and lacks the spark of character that only handwriting could provide.

Will this fading generation also be the last to write letters? Messages crafted by hand rather than bits of binary code? Writing that carries emotions rather than emoticons?

A good handwritten letter is a creative act, and not just because it is a visual and tactile pleasure. It is a deliberate act of exposure, a form of vulnerability, because handwriting opens a window on the soul in a way that cyber communication can never do. You savor their arrival and later take care to place them in a box for safe keeping.

If you’re like most people, you probably handle most of your correspondence electronically and don’t think twice about deleting e-mails. Yet chances are you’ve got a box of letters stashed away somewhere that fill your heart with joy every time you dig them out and reread them. I for one have loads of the letters written by my wife to me and more loads of letters written by my two wonderful children during their early years.

I think letters are so much more than communication. It’s the touch of the paper, the feeling you get when you open it. I have a box of letters that I put in a closet and every few years I come across it. It’s amazing how you can relive those moments with a letter. With an e-mail, it doesn’t have that same feeling. Letters are just really personal, so hopefully it’s not a dying art.

And it’s not just the content of the letters that matters. One of the real joys I take from looking at a handwritten letter is not just the content but the way in which they’re writing. If you’re conveying some information typed out in an e-mail it doesn’t really have the same immediate emotional impact as when you see someone’s handwriting expressing those same thoughts. For people who are interested in local history and genealogy, to be able to see their ancestors’ handwriting can feel really immediate and special for them.

The most dramatic feature of electronic communication is surely its propensity to tempt us into dashing off a message in haste that we repent at leisure. As the emails ping into our inbox we answer them helter-skelter, breathlessly, without pausing to reflect on nuance or tone. As a consequence, misunderstandings often arise – “I’m sorry to have upset you,” a colleague will reply to an email I intended as a matter-of-fact response to a bit of the company business.

Electronic communication allows people to stay in touch with many friends and acquaintances that otherwise they would have lost contact with. Some say it’s adding another form of communication in terms of people feeling a sense of connection, of thinking they have a group of friends they can turn to and who can turn to them.

Of course, in an age where the quick fix is the norm, it is much easier to text or e-mail. Maybe that’s why sending and receiving a handwritten letter is so special, it takes time and effort. It’s a very personal thing, something to treasure. And while it may be true that most people these days rely more on e-mail than they do on “snail mail,” is it still much too soon to pronounce letters dead?


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