Letters vs. Email

The proper definition of a man is an animal that writes letters.

Lewis Carroll

If I were making a New Year’s Resolution, I’d resolve to write more letters. In several recent books I’ve read (E. B. White On Dogs, Bing Crosby, Swinging On A Star, Will & Ariel Durant: A Dual Autobiography) letter-writing is the main form of communication. I am envious of all of that letter-writing.

I know that Lettermo takes place in February. But I don’t want to write letters for the sake of writing them. I want to write them for practical purposes, be it general communication, or responding to official business. The problem is that’s just not how things are done anymore. Email is faster.

The problem with email is that it is devoid of art. Letters are an art form. Why else collect the letters of E. B. White or Andy Rooney or Isaac Asimov or the countless other men and women whose letters have been collected in book form over time? Few email message have any style. The only exception I can think of are the email message I receive from my friend and mentor, Barry N. Malzberg. His email messages, though brief, have a style uniquely Malzbergian. Others who have received email from Barry will know what I am talking about.

Letters can be historic: reading just a few of the letters between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson demonstrates this point. They can be pointedly funny and acerbic, as we find in some of the letters Andy Rooney has written. They can be complete works of art as I’ve seen in some of the letters of E. B. White. They can be flirty and beautifully written, as I’ve seen in some of Will Durant’s letters. The more I’ve consideredt this, the more I’ve grown to despise email as a form of communication. Even the interoffice memo, which email has supplanted, had more art and grace than the electronic message.

Through college, letters were still the primary way in which two people at a distance corresponded. I must have a hundred letters between me and my grandfather. Back then, a long distance call might go for 10 cents a minute, but a 5 page letter cost only 22-cents.

The very fact that a letter costs money helps you to decide if what you have to say is worth the price of a stamp. I also think that what I say in a letter is better thought out than what I say in an email–although for anyone wondering, my letters more often than not read like these blog posts, because that is how I write.

Perhaps more than anything, letters slow down the pace of life. I often feel compelled to respond briefly to an email message that appears in my inbox just to clear it out of the way. There is no joy in the response. I’m just getting it done as quickly as I can in order to move on to what’s next without it nagging at me. Letters take time to compose. They take time to get where they are going and take time in getting answered. I see a letter correspondence as a kind of pace car to the speed at which I want to live my life.

I picture myself setting aside one morning a week to handle all of my correspondence. Without the sense of urgency, there is no need to respond the moment a message arrives in the mailbox. It seems like a pleasant way to spend a morning. I could do this with email, I suppose, but it somehow isn’t the same, just like reading an e-book doesn’t feel quite the same as reading the same book on paper. Letter writing is an art; email is a chore.

Letters are easier to organize than email. I’m always groping for a particular message, and with more than 100,000 emails in my archive, finding one is often tricky. Filing letters (even scanning them and filing them electronically) is far simpler. Also, I doubt the volume of my letter correspondence would come within two orders of magnitude of my email correspondence. Also, I think, “I have in my hand your letter of 23 December, and…” sounds much better than a reply to an email in which the only context is the thread of the email exchange itself.

I suppose I could write email messages as if they were letters, but they don’t look like letters and the look is part of the art. I suppose I could write letters, but in recent years, when I have tried this, I’ve received emails in response, often curious as to why I would resort to such an archaic form of communication. I feel a strong sense of rebellion within me, however, and something has to be done about it.

Perhaps I should just start writing letters, damning convention, even if I don’t expect to receive any in return. I can design a special letterhead that would have a link to this post by way of explanation.

Then again, I often feel like doing whatever it is I see happening in the books I read. If I read a book about an entertainer, I want to be an entertainer. If I read a collection of sports columns, I want to be a sports columnist. Maybe this recent longing for writing letters is noting more than my reaction to reading lots of letters in recent books. I’ve read a lot of letters, now I want to be a letter-writer.

Published by Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Falls Church, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.

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