Have you ever written a letter? Do you even know what that is? Answers to these questions will reveal your age, for sure. I’m talking about the kind of letter people used to write all the time, putting pen to paper, folding it, putting it in an envelope and mailing it to the one you were writing to. Many people think that’s gone the way of the buggy whip, but I’m old enough to remember when letter writing was an integral part of my and many other people’s existence, for me primarily back in the 80s and into the early 90s; sadly no more, until maybe now.
Seeing the title of a piece called “The Lost Art of Letter Writing” hooked me immediately. Everyone thinks that the internet and e-mail was the death of letter writing, but the author of the piece, Ashley McGuire, makes a plausible case that the demise of letter writing was on its way out well before the internet became a viable popular communication vehicle:
People today are eager to blame the death of letter writing on the Internet, but I am not so sure. The Internet did not really get going until I was in high school, and I never learned formal penmanship past second grade, despite an entirely private education.
I think this is what happened:
1. Schools stopped teaching penmanship.
2. People became embarrassed of the appearance of their handwriting.
3. People wrote fewer letters.
4. The Internet arrived and with it, email.
5. People found in email a replacement for letter writing.
So email dealt the final blow to letter writing. But the decline came before as less people learned to write, literally. Add in television and a generally faster-paced world, and carving out 30 minutes to write something that takes three in an email seemed increasingly silly.
But of course taking the time and attention to craft a piece of writing that will communicate in depth to another person is not at all silly. But what really connected with me is what Ms. McGuire writes about the discipline of writing letters:
What it boils down to is that letters require patience, time, restraint, and forethought. Writing a neat, well-thought out, elegant letter requires ten times the time as an email. As letters have gone away, it seems the corresponding virtues have as well. A sense of formality out of respect for the other. A sense of restraint out of respect for oneself. Even the ability to write seems to be crumbling among today’s young people.
We live in a shallow and pretentious age in which surface values reign, where beauty is only skin deep, where goodness and truth are deemed relative to our own subjective desires and perspective, and where politics and public discourse is a competition of sound bites and strategy. One could go on with such negative assessments, but these suffice.
I am convinced that as widespread as these values are in America today, that they are as appealing and ultimately as satisfying as cotton candy; and any of our fellow citizens who think at all know it. I believe that the permanent things, as Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn often says, those things we’ve inherited from ancient Greece and Rome and Jerusalem, comport more closely to the reality that is the human person than what the dominant American culture puts out on a daily basis.
If we really desire to roll back the progressive, secularist, Machiavellian agenda of our cultural elite, just maybe sitting down and writing a letter, the old fashioned kind, might be a small way to contribute to that.