The Lost Art of Letter Writing
January 11, 2014 | 12:26 pm
By Joanna Cabot
One of the odd little treasures we found amongst my late grandfather’s shelves full of esoteric bibliophilia was a book of his own creation: a binder full of letters he wrote to his synagogue over several months in 1993.
Grandpa was an avid letter writer, and we did found countless other loose missives amongst his papers, but this particular set was unique in that the letters—both those he wrote and the responses he received—are preserved in a chronological fashion, and when read in sequence, they tell a complete story.
It’s a somewhat ridiculous story, granted; it involves a dispute he had with the president of the congregation over a habit he and his buddies had of smuggling in a bottle of schnapps to enjoy together after morning prayers. But this dispute mattered to him, at least enough for him to save a record of it for all these years. And, subject matter notwithstanding, he truly was an excellent at writing letters.
It struck me when I read them what a lost art this is! I thought back to my own voluminous correspondences of the past year. If I discounted work-related emails, and articles I wrote for Teleread, how many of my emails would exceed 50 words? How many of them would, as Grandpa’s did, quote bible passages, snippets from great literature, or quotes from previous letters received from the person I was writing to? If I compiled them together, how many of them would tell a complete story more complex than ‘a history of the date and times we arranged to meet for coffee, with a bonus index of Starbucks locations where the meetings eventually took place’?
I wish all of his letters had been so well-organized. We saw a few he wrote to his sister-in-law in California, updating her on my Grandma’s health, on his children’s weddings and divorces, vacations, families, on his grandchildren and their growth and development. Alas, these were not so well-organized, and we lacked the time to find them all and put them into any order. We saw a few, written after his own father died, where he reminisced on his own childhood with this great-grandpa I barely knew, on the clothing store he had, on the advice had given his son when he set off on life’s great adventures. The best I have so far is an Evernote plug-in that automatically retrieves my Facebook status updates and saves them into a text file. It’s just not the same.
I hope that the art of writing doesn’t die with his generation. I fear that when today’s increasingly entrepreneurial generation thinks of writing, they think of writing which can be monetized. And that’s great—my bank account sure does not begrudge the bits I can bring in on the side through my freelance projects. But how many of us really take the time to keep a record of our lives that goes deeper than the status update level? Isn’t there—still—a value in that?