A New Age of Letters

Article excerpt

I have always been fascinated by movies and books in which people routinely sit at their desks, pick up quills or pens, and attend to their correspondence. The idea of setting aside time each day for, personal, written communication is wonderful, and I respond with awe to evidence of this commitment in others. In comparison, my own letter-writing activities have dwindled to the occasional post-card level. Recently, I have even let Christmas cards slide in favour of occasional seasonal phone calls to distant friends. Thus, I have contributed to the death of the art of letter writing, just as much as I have been captured by the history of letters, and the record of friendships preserved in them.

Mourning over the decline m writing in general, and the total eclipse of the letter in particular, has been especially marked in the wake of computers and the Internet. And it is certainly true that people do not write the long, drifting letters that used to take a morning to compose. My spirits have been buoyed, however, by the growing presence of e-mail.

I know that inter-relay chat lines, newsgroups, and discussion lists serve much the same purpose, bringing virtual strangers into close verbal contact with each other over the net. But it is e-mail in particular, with its epistolary hangovers in the form of salutations, closings, and often, entire paragraphs of complete and coherent sentences, that seems so charmingly quaint in this age of curtness, and likely to spawn a whole new age of letters. But this resurgence in letter-writing can only take place if certain rules of "netiquette" are consciously bent, if not broken.

For example, many of my e-mail correspondents refuse, as I do, to surrender to the business/military imperative that drives so much of computer communication, and that requires of all electronic writing that it be crisp, efficient, and memo-like. Instead, we subvert the assumption that all communication must be productive, and import older values of writing for its own sake into the virtual world. …