I’ve just found a letter someone wrote me that I should have responded to about a year and a half ago. It’s my first letter from a reader for The Well and the Mine. It’s lovely and smart and very kind, and it nearly made me cry. It’s the kind of letter you have to answer.
Then I promptly lost it. In my defense, I was getting married and we were moving into a new house, and many other things vanished without a trace. (I still haven’t found my Xena Warrior Princess action figure or my winter coat.) But this letter just turned up in the back of a file folder. And it’s got me thinking how much I love letters. Not e-mail, not Facebook. Actual sheets of paper with ink on them, folded into envelopes. How many people still write those?
I do write letters in response to any readers who’ve written me a letter. I’m blown away that anyone would take the time to jot down what they think of a book and pass that along to the author. Trust me, it’s a real gift. This long-lost letter I mentioned is written by a father, and he talks about which parts of The Well and the Mine he read aloud to his daughters, and how they reacted. He talks about how one of his daughters has a best friend who’s African American, and what that daughter thought about race relations in the book. So I give him a book, and he sends me back a glimpse into his own life and his own family. That’s a trade-off I’ll take every time.
But here’s the thing. I’ll keep this letter forever. It’ll join a well-preserved stack of letters from friends and former teachers and family members. Letters that my husband writes me–he’s an excellent letter writer–that I’ll keep forever. So from time to time, year to year, I’ll pick up a sheet of paper, unfold it, and take a second to enjoy the curves of the handwriting, just the aesthetics of it, not the actual content, not at first. (Handwritten letters are particularly nice, although not from me–my handwriting is utterly illegible.) Sometimes I smell the paper. I like to hold the words in my hand, which is the same reason I prefer the hard copy of the New York Times. And I like to reread my favorite parts.
I do not think I’d keep an e-mail forever. I don’t want to scroll slowly up and down the screen, rereading the words. It lacks romance and makes my head hurt after a while. It’s nice sometimes, to be able to write on someone’s Wall or shoot a text just to say hello or comment on the latest episode of Mad Men. It’s an easy way to keep in touch. And inevitably, I send more texts and write more e-mails than I would ever write letters. Technology brings the benefit of more frequent contact.
But it’s more distracted contact. It’s very different than carrying pen and paper out to the porch, staring off into the distance, and taking an hour or so to explain to my grandmother or my cousin or my friend in Ireland what’s going on in my life and my world and what I think about it, every word and every reference and every joke aimed at my one chosen listener. That’s an intimate conversation. It’s sending a message not only in words, but in the time and effort devoted to the message. Updating your Facebook status may pass along the same basic information, but there’s no intimacy to it. There’s no sense of being chosen.
I think about the letters John Adams wrote to Abigail Adams (and vice versa), about the priceless stacks of letters left behind by Emily Dickenson or F. Scott Fitzgerald or the Brownings. There’s something concrete about them, something that makes history so solid and tangible. Something that quantifies, by the length of the letter and the time involved, just how much the letter writer values the person who’ll be opening the envelope.
And now I guess I’ll click publish and update this blog.