Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Wave of the Present

I got my first laptop just one year ago. It’s great and, next to my dog, it’s my most valued possession.

I don’t have a cell phone—about eight years ago, I had one for over a year that I used at most six times, for a total of perhaps eight minutes—not worth the expense.

I have a digital camera, which I love, but a part of me misses film—I even miss the 24-hour wait before finding out what the images look like—almost like carrying a pregnancy to full term. For some reason, I take fewer pictures with my digital camera than I did with my old chemo-mechanical cameras.

In some respects, I’m surprised to find myself saying these things, because you’d think modern communications are tailor-made for people like me. Frankly, I’m not particularly good in social situations even of the old-fashioned face-to-face variety. I’m introverted, blunt to the point of rudeness, self-absorbed, easily distracted, and often unmannerly.

In the hierarchy of media, though, I prefer face-to-face talk to the telephone, my least favorite communications tool—just slightly below billboards.

I enjoy e-mail, as a rule, but, next to face-to-face talking, my favorite means of communicating is the handwritten personal letter.


Letters have texture and scent.

I rather like the flavor of gummed envelopes and stamps.

Letters can be re-read, analyzed, and wrapped in ribbon for storage—and then …

You can unexpectedly come across old letters while you’re looking for something else.

Letters exist in time and space.

Letters are slow—e-mail is like drive-thru fast food compared to a letter’s homemade dinner.

Handwriting is more expressive than typeface. It indicates the personality and mood of the writer, so a handwritten letter displays an array of visual cues and thus offers a fuller communication experience.

Writing letters requires thought, the setting aside of time to do the task, alone. As a result, letters are essentially intimate—especially in contrast to calling somebody from the supermarket checkout.

Letters are not only written in private but also usually read in private.

Letters arrive in sealed envelopes, and opening them is like opening a small wrapped present.

Letters may contain money … or a strand of hair … or the imprint of a kiss … or fingerprints … or tear stains … or a self-addressed stamped envelope for reply.

Handwritten letters are still the preferred means of conveying our most personal sentiments—condolences, congratulations, thanks—which suggests that letters may be key to maintaining some measure of intimacy, respect, and humanity in a machine-driven world.

(For efficiency I can understand using machines in business. But in personal life? Isn’t it a bit like keeping a stapler as a pet? or clocking in and out of your own home? or treating your friends like clients? And is there even an equivalent e-mail term for “love letter”?)

Letters are mysterious, messy, flammable, discreet, material, surprising, impressive, suspenseful, satisfying, and human.

Despite emoticons, the day of the passionate e-mail has not yet arrived. In the meantime, we still have postage stamps, stationery, and ink.

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