The Lost Art of Letter Writing

In this age of mobility and information, there simply isn't any time for such a thing as a long, flowing, hand-written letter.
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Thanks to the Internet, I have over the years managed to get back in touch with many long-lost friends. But one of them recently sent me an e-mail complaining that, now that we are communicating on a regular basis, she actually misses me more, not less.

Astounded by the seemingly paradoxical statement, I immediately hit reply: "L. what on earth do you mean?"

Within half-an-hour or so, her e-mail came back with a strangely familiar passage in quotation marks. "Late last night the rain fell. It dripped and dropped against my windowsills announcing the departure of a lethargic winter. Yet I didn't mind the winter nights. What I fear is the warmth of summer. When my skin turns bronze and when that afternoon sun lingers a bit too long on my shoulders, oh L. I get in trouble."

Only when I got to the end did it dawn on me that it was my own writing. I wrote this passage to L. two decades ago in a handwritten letter, something I regret to report that I rarely do these days. L. concluded: "See what I mean? Where is the writer of this letter now? We e-mail, but are we really in touch?"

Hers is a fair accusation, though she, too, has stopped writing such expressive letters. Since we communicate by e-mail, we say things that are neither deep nor profound. We are communicating again after some silent years, but L. and I communicate badly. Our electronic correspondence stays on this shallower side of the lake, and our prose, if such it can be called, is only a bit wittier than the yellow pages of the phone book.

"How's it going?" I would ask in a text. "Bye."

"Went to see a show last night," L would text back.

"Fantastic. But my kid's crying, though. Got to go. Love."

My suspicion is that in a world where we are constantly chatting and twitting, very little is actually being said. We substitute human emotions with punctuations :> :< and emoticons, hoping somehow they could substitute our sensibility and taste and convey the nuances of our lives.

"The majority of students are leaving high school without the necessary reading and writing skills needed to succeed in college and a career," noted the Alliance for Excellent in Education. And according to the NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress], more than 60 percent of middle and high school students scored below the "proficient" level in reading achievement. So with speed and easy access, the first few casualties may be depth and style. But I fear the last might be literacy itself.

Marshall McLuhan, Canadian professor of Renaissance literature, foresaw the decline of all that he loved and knew -- the age of literacy. He predicted, instead, the rise of new oral/aural technologies. People chatting while driving, reading their e-mails at the coffee shop, but not pausing long enough to reflect.

Indeed, these days I find the only people who write good letters are the old or those living in refugee camps or in prison. A refugee picks up his pen and begins to bleed himself into words. And the prisoner, too, who lives intimately with the knowledge of his own solitude, and who longs for the insularities of the world he left behind, finds his voice true and clear.

For the rest of us in this age of mobility and information, there simply isn't any time for such a thing as a long, flowing, hand-written letter. I am no exception. Reading the passage L. sent me, I was overwhelmed by the desire to possess those letters I had sent away so freely so long ago.

Or rather, I longed to know him again, the lonely writer of those letters who never heard of such things as e-mails, twitter and who lived in an age not so long ago, but that might as well belong to another era. It is one where the mailman still played the troubadour of sorts for star-crossed lovers, and not what he is now: The carrier of bills and junk mail.

Andrew Lam is author of East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres and Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora. His next book, "Birds of Paradise" -- a collection of short stories -- is due out in 2013.

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