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Lost in the Mail: Letter-Writing is a Dying Art

Updated on November 30, 2013
Penning well-wishes or a thank-you note may establish a correspondence that can be an invaluable addition to a relationship.
Penning well-wishes or a thank-you note may establish a correspondence that can be an invaluable addition to a relationship. | Source

Technology Reigns

In a world that thrives on speed and technological improvement, any refusal to "get with the times" can seem a bit backward. Some of the intangiables, however, are lost as a result of "improvement." A Kindle book will never have the smell of a first edition hardback. A project on Microsoft Paint will never have the allure of a Van Gogh. And e-mails and text messages will never have the warm feeling of a handwritten letter.

That being said, it is difficult to even imagine a non-apocalyptic world that would return heavily to this centuries-old method of communication. As Sue Brennan, spokeswoman for the United States Postal Service succinctly puts it, “personal correspondence [in its historical sense] has died.”1 Letter-writing was always primarily a way to stay connected with friends and loved ones, but because the delivery time is so short with the internet and other current technologies, traditional pen-to-paper exchanges are fading out.

Last year, almost 30 billion non-spam e-mails and 400 million tweets were sent every day.2,3 Meanwhile, over the past nine years the annual mail delivery load of the United States Postal Service has dropped by over 20 percent (or 40 billion envelopes and parcels)!4 People do not seem to be fashioning messages the way their grandparents did.

“It's funny; in this era of e-mail and voice mail and all those things that even I did not grow up with, a plain old paper letter takes on amazing intimacy.”
Elizabeth Kostova, The Swan Thieves

Intimacy of Pen-to-Paper

If it were true that the only benefit of the epistolary arts was to convey personal information to loved ones there could be no defense of its tedious and sluggish methodology, but what is sometimes unwittingly sacrificed in the name of convenient communication is a genuine and real intimacy.

epistolary (adj): relating to the writing of letters

There is no ignoring the closeness two people share at either end of a mail correspondence. A genuine connection exists between a friend who dedicates his time, mental energies, and money (even just a few dimes) to the recipient of his craft. The letter is sealed like a secret and passed through the public hands of strangers like an uncompromised whisper until it arrives, a little piece of history, marked as a diary that reads where its been. Under the fingers of its destined audience, it is opened, examined and beheld: a work of art. No instantly gratifying method of communication carries with it such heft.

“A letter is always better than a phone call. People write things in letters they would never say in person. They permit themselves to write down feelings and observations using emotional syntax far more intimate and powerful than speech will allow.”
Alice Steinbach, Educating Alice: Adventures of a Curious Woman

In addition to the words themselves, little pieces of the author may be left on the paper, enhancing the impact of the interaction. Did you set out to write after gardening? Some of that dirt will likely make the trip. Did your pen run dry forcing you to make a mid-letter switch? Your reader will make that connection. Lipstick kisses and dabs of perfume have been a love letter staple for years. Remember that old phrase, "It's the little things that count"? Letters are a hotbed of little things.

Click the source link for the full transcript of this letter to a young fan by Harper Lee!
Click the source link for the full transcript of this letter to a young fan by Harper Lee! | Source

Additional Impacts of Writing

Letter writing has more wide-sweeping benefits than just the fuzzy feeling we get straight out of the mailbox. Writing letters is an engaging way for children to learn the fundamentals of the language.

''The effort of writing is a very real one for a child. Painstakingly manoeuvring (sic) the pencil across the page, thinking of the best words to convey a message, struggling with spelling and punctuation.

''It is, however, an effort worth making, because it's only through practice that we become truly literate – and literacy is the hallmark of human civilisation.''5

Epistolary correspondence is the epitome of killing two birds with one stone. Because letter-writing enables the author to communicate in a slow and deliberate manner, it provides the opportunity to explore word choice, structure, and grammar in a focused way. Furthermore, the concentrated efforts are likely to produce both increased levels of literacy, a significant factor for determining future success,6 and introspection, which promotes healthy "socio-emotional development."7

I received this letter from my favorite high school teacher in 2008.  It has been safely tucked in my writing desk from which I occasionally pull it to reflect.
I received this letter from my favorite high school teacher in 2008. It has been safely tucked in my writing desk from which I occasionally pull it to reflect. | Source

A TED speaker comments on the longevity of letters

Another benefit of recording our messages on paper is their longevity. By comparison to the incredibly temporal nature of electronic communications such as text messages, which demand eventual deletion, and social media messages, which, in time, get pushed off the page, physical paper can last indefinitely. They can be saved and easily retrieved after months, years, or generations. The hands of a reader from any age can finger the same sheets as the writer, and, for a moment, a true connection can be maintained.

Lastly, the beautiful and fading art of letter writing can be used to teach, and not just about syntax. Establishing a mail correspondence is a lesson in patience, focus, time management, reflection, and--if you're doing it right--emotional honesty.

I'll grant the benefits of speed to e-mail and other technologies, but letter-writing is an art form deserving of our respect and reconsideration.

Nostalgic? Yeah, but the advice still fits!

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    • profile image

      abhilasha 3 years ago

      Very well written .... full of material n expression ....hats off

    • Edward J. Palumbo profile image

      Ed Palumbo 4 years ago from Tualatin, OR

      I was an evening adult education instructor and I wrote the evening's lesson objectives on the board. One young adult commented, "I can't read what you've written!" I turned to double-check what I'd written and asked what sentence was difficult to understand. She answered, "All of it. I read print, but I can't read cursive." I nodded, and printed what I'd written. I've since encountered that again, and it appears cursive writing has fallen off the list of priorities at many schools. I find that disappointing. I still write my personal correspondence with a fountain pen.

    • djt5036 profile image
      Author

      Daniel J. Taylor 4 years ago from Eddystone, PA

      Decided to try to put my appreciation for letters to work!

      http://fiverr.com/djt5036/mail-an-anonymous-handwr...

    • LongTimeMother profile image

      LongTimeMother 4 years ago from Australia

      Awesome hub.

      I can't imagine a home without bookshelves, although I know they exist. Similarly, I find it hard to imagine what it would be like to rely on a keyboard for all correspondence. I use a pen and paper at least once every day. :)

      Voted up +.

    • Beata Stasak profile image

      Beata Stasak 4 years ago from Western Australia

      Letter writing is an art and you presented it well:)

    • djt5036 profile image
      Author

      Daniel J. Taylor 4 years ago from Eddystone, PA

      jdw7979, Kenja, and Kathryn,

      Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment on my hub! There certainly does seem to be something special about those tangible relics, and jdw I hope you're right and that letter-writing does make a comeback!

    • Kathryn Stratford profile image

      Kathryn 4 years ago from Manchester, Connecticut

      I could write an entire hub on my love for writing letters! But for now, my comment will do just fine.

      You have done a wonderful job with this article, with the quotes and the references!

      I have been writing letters since I was a kid. My maternal grandfather lived about 10 hours away from me while I was growing up, and he bought me stationery so that I would write to him. He would also correct my letters, and show me my mistakes later on. He was the first one in my life who taught me the pleasure of writing.

      Even nowadays, there's something so exciting about both writing a letter to a loved one, and finding a letter in the mailbox.

      Thank you for sharing this with us. I found this as one of the "Rising Stars" mentioned on the HubPage newsletter. Good luck!

      ~ Kathryn

    • Kenja profile image

      Ken Taub 4 years ago from Long Island, NY

      Thoughtful, erudite, generally excellent. You don't usually get paragraphs like this on Hub Pages; good stuff:

      Epistolary correspondence is the epitome of killing two birds with one stone. Because letter-writing enables the author to communicate in a slow and deliberate manner, it provides the opportunity to explore word choice, structure, and grammar in a focused way. Furthermore, the concentrated efforts are likely to produce both increased levels of literacy, a significant factor for determining future success,6 and introspection, which promotes healthy "socio-emotional development."7

    • jdw7979 profile image

      John David 4 years ago from Middle America

      Great Hub!

      Sadly, the hand written letter is and has been losing steam thanks to technology, but remember, what is old seemingly becomes popular again. Possibly not to the extent it was, yet I am a guy who prefers vinyl over a CD, and records have slowly been coming back.

      There is something personal in a letter and about the letter writer, so that practice will hopefully never fully die. Again, nice Hub!

    • gipsiecrone profile image

      Martha Bowman 4 years ago from presently St Augustine, FL

      writing is truly a lost art and by some of us - truly missed.

    • djt5036 profile image
      Author

      Daniel J. Taylor 4 years ago from Eddystone, PA

      Thank you all for your comments! Surely there is something lost for all the convenience and quickness of technological communication. The fact that this article is posted on-line, however, seems steeped in irony, wouldn't you say?

    • epbooks profile image

      Elizabeth Parker 4 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      While I do love the technological age, I have to admit, I have a certain fondness for actual letter writing with pen and paper...and do miss it. I'm guilty of typing everything but this hub caught my eye because yesterday I found a pink legal notepad...and had to buy it. I haven't written in a notepad in years, but something compelled me to do so. Maybe I'll write a letter or two! :)

    • profile image

      Mike 4 years ago

      You can figure out a person's worth...you just gotta check their mail.

    • profile image

      Kyle 4 years ago

      I think that even though we write letters less and less, the ones we do write become that much more special. Your piece was thoughtful and enjoyable. Thank you for sharing.

    • profile image

      Josh 4 years ago

      There is a great deal of truth in this, but alas, this generation has both an extremely limited command of the English language and a limited ability to focus on a form of communication that is not in fact instantaneous. I still personally possess a stack of letters, old communications with friends from a time when email did not exist; I will cherish these forever.