When 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.
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.