Saturday, March 23, 2013

The archaeology of writing

I would not be the first to bemoan the loss of the art of letter writing. I love email and even understand the utility of texting. Those methods are rarely considered communication. The very act of writing a letter made you stop and think. It took some effort, not just the effort of finding a pencil or rolling paper into a typewriter, but the effort of gathering your thoughts to put them into some cohesive form.

Your investment in a letter in terms of time was magnitudes beyond what one usually devotes to an email. In our heads, email is free. We don’t stop to do the math that takes into account the electricity, the computer, the broadband and the frustration that has gone into that free email. But a stamp, there’s something that has a price tag. You made a commitment when you wrote a letter. It was something that might be around for 200 years and it cost you a visible fraction of an hour’s wages to send it off on a physical journey across the country.

Recently I have been helping a California writer who is doing a book about the artists of that state, one of whom was my delightful cousin Mabel Bennett Hutchinson. He has a thousand questions, many of them about her early years. I wasn’t around in the 20s when she was just starting her art career. But she saved her correspondence from that time, and later used those letters to help her recreate her life for an autobiography she wrote for the family.
There are letters and papers still around from my great grandparents. It is through those that we learn about their lives. They are the core of more than one book.

Where will the novelists and historians of the future look to learn about our everyday lives? Emails, I suppose, if some of them survive. Few of us make any effort to preserve them. Even if they are available will they simply portray us as shallow and frivolous? Where is today’s considered communication between friends and family? Facebook? Please.

I love email, texting and even Facebook. If they are the record we leave behind, though, tomorrow’s archaeologists will be poorer for it.

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