Are Blogs the Letters of the 21st Century?

Feb 26

4696589795_e0e83d8915_bWhen was the last time you received a letter in the mail? A good, old-fashioned, honest-to-goodness, hand-written letter? Not just a birthday card, with a short personal message scribbled on it. Or a “We need to catch up soon!” jotted at the bottom of a canned Christmas letter. A letter – on onion-skin stationery or heavy card-stock?

When was the last time you wrote one?

I recently read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a lovely novel written almost entirely in letters. In the book, a young London author begins a correspondence with the eclectic and endearing members of a wartime book club on Guernsey, one of the islands in the English Channel. Over the course of writing to these men and women, Juliet comes to see these people she’s never met as true friends – so much so that she turns inward to a degree, living through her wordy relationships rather than those with the people surrounding her.

And as you read their letters to her – and hers to them – you begin to understand why. Full of humor, insight, and compassion, the letters create a picture of life on Guernsey during the Second World War, a time during which books and conversation were the only creature comforts available to the occupied islanders.

In a letter to her editor when she finally makes her way to visit her friends on Guernsey, Juliet writes:

As the mail boat lurched into the harbor, I saw St. Peter Port rising up from the sea on terraces, with a church on the top like a cake decoration, and I realized that my heart was galloping. As much as I tried to persuade myself it was the thrill of the scenery, I knew better. All those people I’ve come to know and even love a little, waiting to see – me. And I, without any paper hide behind.

Reading these beautiful letters made me lament that we seem to have moved away from letter writing as a culture. We e-mail, we text, we tweet. We focus on efficiency rather than profundity. And how much less personal does a message seem when you can’t feel the indentations in the paper from the pressure of the pen, can’t see the smudges of the ink? Or when the author abbreviates her words? Are our words really worth so little that we can’t take the time to spell them out? IDK

But then, just as nostalgia for the days of pen and paper threatened to convert me to a total Luddite, it occurred to me: I write letters all the time. I write about my feelings. I write about the people and events that matter to me. I think about the words I choose. I share pieces of myself.

I blog.

In a letter to Juliet, the Guernsey literary society’s matriarch writes, “Excuse my unburdening myself. My worries travel about my head on their well-worn path, and it is a relief to put them on paper.” This internalization of worry is a sensation that is familiar to me – as is the sweet satisfaction that comes from putting my thoughts down on screen.

Moreover, the community that I have found here in the blogosphere rivals the camaraderie of Juliet and her correspondents. About them and her experience in writing to them, Juliet notes:

The truth is, I am living more in Guernsey than I am in London at the moment – I pretend work with one ear cocked for the sound of the post dropping in the box, and when I hear it, I scramble down the stairs, breathless for the next piece of the story. This must be how people felt when they gathered around the publisher’s door to seize the latest installment of David Copperfield as it came off the printing press.

Like Juliet and her letters, I look forward to the posts and comments of the men and women I have found online. I check my e-mail eager to read a comment from one of them. I open a feedly window ready to devour one of their posts – one of their letters to me. My mind percolates with ideas for new posts of my own – my letters to them. Although I have only met a handful of them in person, I think of them as friends. They know me. I know them.

In the end, though, I am left wondering: if we spend too much time living in these virtureal communities – in the words we exchange with these friends on paper or on-screen – are we missing out on the life happening around us?

Juliet wonders too:

[I]n these past two or three years, I have become better at writing than living…On the page, I’m perfectly charming, but that’s just a trick I learned. It has nothing to do with me. At least, that’s what I was thinking as the mail boat came toward the pier.

Writing letters – or blog posts – may be a salve for the growing trend toward impersonality in our communication, but can writing ever replace the intimacy and immediacy of an in-person encounter? By elevating blogging in this way, am I just trying to justify my focus on a screen rather than on the people and events around me?

What do you think? Are blogs the letters of the 21st century? Does our dedication to our online community threaten our relationships with our real-time one?

Image: Letters by Paul Simpson via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.


{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Shannon February 26, 2014 at 8:48 am

I do miss the intimacy of personal letters, but I wouldn’t want to give up the efficiency and convenience of internet communications. I do think that our blog posts are a little like letters, with the difference being that they are directed at many instead of one special person. Perhaps that makes them less personal.
I love the community that I have found through blogging, but I do think that having a constant finger on the pulse of what is happening online can be isolating and distracting. I guess balance is the answer. It seems to be the answer for a lot of things.


Andrea February 26, 2014 at 11:00 am

Very interesting and something to ponder. I, for one, am a terrible/boring letter-writer, (and I like to think my blog posts aren’t too terrible/boring…). I slip into the vague/general, rather than the specific. Also, I’m not comfortable revealing too much of myself to people I know, but somehow the veil of the blog makes it easier (though there’s plenty I don’t share there, either). I think in the end, it comes down to a balance (like all things, yes? or is that just a chiche and a cop-out?)…between a life of living and a life of letters (blogs); between our inner world and our outer world; between reading and writing and being and doing. I wouldn’t want to eliminate either side.


Elizabeth Grant Thomas February 26, 2014 at 11:46 am

I still write a lot of letters — not as many as I used to, but I maintain a small-but-dedicated group of women with whom I exchange regular correspondence. I am, I know, a dying breed! I love the connection you make between blogging and letter writing, something I had never considered but that makes a whole lot of sense.


C. Troubadour February 26, 2014 at 2:49 pm

Oh, that’s a tough one, Kristen, that final question — I know I’m more able to express myself in writing than in person with most people I meet, until that magical click happens and I find myself in the right company to engage in more than small talk. If I *had* that kind of company near as much as I would love to, I imagine I’d take that over writing if I had to choose. Or perhaps it would change how I write because that would no longer be the outlet for the thoughts and feelings that otherwise haven’t found ears. Intimacy and immediacy are treasures when they’re found, no?


Melissa Camara Wilkins February 26, 2014 at 5:18 pm

Oooh, great question. I don’t think blogging has replaced letter-writing for me, because I was never much of a letter-writer. But… email-letter-writing, maybe a little bit, because I don’t have infinite time to spend at the computer–it can only go to one task or the other. Either way, I wish I were the kind of person who could figure out how to incorporate real letter-writing into her day. There’s just something special about getting letters in the mail. I would love to be delivering that kind of magic into people’s lives more often.


thekitchwitch February 26, 2014 at 5:39 pm

I do think of blogs as letters of a sort. I love getting letters in the mail, but I’m also excited to see blog posts in my inbox :)

I loved that book!


Jack February 26, 2014 at 6:18 pm

Blogs are absolutely letters of the 21st century, no doubt in my mind about that.


Perfecting Motherhood February 26, 2014 at 8:30 pm

I’m not sure we don’t communicate as deeply as with letters before, well, at least for some of us. I’ve known my best friend for over 20 years. We only lived next to each other for 5. Since then, we’ve talked on the phone, sent letters across the Atlantic, and eventually moved on to email once we realized we didn’t have to wait 2 to 4 weeks to get a response to our letters. Email has been the BEST thing for our friendship, keeping us connected at any moment in time. We can send a message any time and get a response within a few hours. I also like the magic of digital pictures. We can take so many more pictures and share them instantly with others. We don’t have to wait to finish the film, develop it and realize that 90% of our photos are junk. As much as I loved my film camera when it was all I had, I never want to go back to using it!

But on the other hand, I agree that technology has made some of us lazy. Those are the people who never bother sending individualized notes, preferring to blast everyone on Facebook and see who will bite. But I bet they weren’t letter writers years ago either.

I loved that book, by the way!


Nina February 27, 2014 at 7:33 am

Yes! What a great insight . . . many posts (of mine and others) do feel like letters. And then throw in the comments and it really is like a correspondence of sorts, like we’re all a bunch of pen pals. I love that view!

I have not read that book though it’s been sitting on my shelf for a few years.

I also have two boxes of old letters that I want to read, but just haven’t done yet. I guess I’ve been hoping it will open itself to a project of some kind . . . and I’m nervous that I’ll be disappointed with what’s in there so I keep waiting to open the boxes.


Rabbi Rachel Barenblat February 27, 2014 at 7:57 am

At Bennington I read the collected letters of Elizabeth Bishop, and mourned the loss of sustained letter-writing as a practice. But I think you’re right that some of that place is filled now by blogs, which are somewhere between letters and essays. I only hope that our blogs will retain some of the permanence of letters — that if our children want someday to read our “correspondence” here, they’ll be able to do so…


Carin February 28, 2014 at 1:29 am

It’s funny, because when I set up my current blog, I chose my blog name partly because it sounded like signing off on a letter. I even considered putting Artfully, Carin xo at the end of each post. I wanted the intimacy of letter writing on my blog. Obviously, it doesn’t work in quite the same way, but it comes close.

I do still write letters. I have a very good friend in Finland who I write to regularly. I also have some friends I have email correspondence with, much in the same vein as letter writing.


Amanda February 28, 2014 at 5:46 pm

Oh, I do love this. As I think about it, I realize that I am not someone who spends much time with people in a non-work environment. Looking back I’ve always been this way as an adult. The time that I d spend trying to be friends in person ends up as a kind of exercise in reading the other person and trying to make them feel good. There isn’t anything wrong with it, but I feel when I write I am at my most genuine, because I am being me and sharing more of myself than I ever seem to allow in person.

I don’t know if it’s a crutch or an artificial substitute, but I do love the kinship that I find in my writing relationships.

Thank you for this chance to consider it.


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