Return To Sender

I I had a thought recently, that one of the benefits of blogging this blog is working in a space that I encourage friends and family to visit and is open the blogosphere forces a certain honesty on the blogger.

No, it doesn’t

I fear that we can all recognize how easy it can be to lie to oneself. But being hypocritical in front of an audience requires a more concerted form of self-deception. In that sense, I’ve found blogging more beneficial than a traditional journal might have been. As my old therapist said, It’s important to see things how they really are. In older days, I suppose if one wanted to share one’s thoughts — whether for the sake of a shared experience or to test them on a helpfully sceptical audience — these entries might have taken the form of an extended correspondence.

Letter writing has been much discussed on the interwebz and in other media in recent weeks. This apparent explosion of interest might suggest that the art of letter-writing is dead, much as an artist passes like a supernova in a last great explosion of her art. Not necessarily in terms of output, but appreciation. See, in recent months, Seamus Heaney and, even more recently, Lou Reed.

Lou says, Q.E.D. (from

Simon Garfield, the author of To the Letter: A Journey Through a Vanishing World, certainly seems to subscribe to that view in his recent Guardian article, In Praise Of The Letter. He finishes on this note:

The writing of letters opens a breadth of human emotion not found in any other form of communication beyond art or the novel. The internet is largely its enemy. Received any good love emails recently? Or anything that might rank with Goethe’s impression of a letter as “the most immediate breath of life, irrecoverable for ourselves and for others?” I didn’t think so.

Leading up to this agonizing tuberculal last gasp of proper correspondence, Garfield describes, in some detail, a letter Ted Hughes wrote to his daughter Frieda, and asks, Could that have been written as an email?

I don’t think so: it’s too artfully composed, too layered and laden. It’s a proper piece of work, homey and chatty and naturally lyrical, and I think as an email it would have appeared too writerly, too out of step with the technology that created it.

Yet as Garfield details, the passing of the letter was mourned with the advent of the adhesive stamp and universal penny postage. Then the typewriter, and the telegraph. “[T]he modern art of leisure” killed it in 1919. Then at the beginning of the 21st century it was killed deader because “we are too busy with work, travel and the demands of modern life.”

Yeah, sent it in The Night Mail, granddad.

Twenty years ago, I sat on a bus, fondly fingering a CD, sadly anticipating the passing of the musical artefact. Even though it was a horrible little perversion of the good old acetate disc. Now, I look forward to putting all those artefacts into little plastic slip covers, packing them into a little box out of the way, and plugging my little iPhone into some little speakers. Audiophiles might argue, and I don’t like the flattening of digital sounds, but while the sound quality may be… different, the music is the same. Hell, after Friendoftheblogpaul’s comment about Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas last week, I listened to Glenn Gould‘s performance of the third movement of Sonata No. 28 on YouTube. Yet, despte that, and even though I’m a punk guttersnipe, having been tuned in, I could still hear the “warmth, depth and complexity” Paul was talking about.

It’s all in the intent, surely. Consider this letter, on Shaun Usher’s wonderful Letters of Note website. In it, Kurt Vonnegut writes to some high school kids:

Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

I shared this letter on twitter, and hence, by the magic of the internet, Facebook. My friend Ian had a thoughtful response:

I only wonder if his message would be lost on those not yet familiar with his work… like our kids. Wisdom without context loses meaning on the young.

I’m not sure. I’ve only read Galapagos. And until two minutes ago, I wasn’t aware of the detail of his experiences at Schlachthof Fünf. Yet something of the man’s humanism and humour shines through, regardless.

Shiny. Happy. Person.

Maybe it’s the pain of experience that brings wisdom. I hope not. But the humour and humanism struck me, even though I was reading the words on a backlit iPhone. Note, Vonnegut doesn’t tell the kids, “Write something in ink. On a piece of paper. So it will last.” On the contrary, he sets them an assignment made up of three tasks. 1. Write a six line poem that rhymes. 2. Tear it up into tiny pieces. 3…

Discard the pieces into widely separated trash recepticals. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

“I wanted to send you my soul, but the envelope was too small.”

And that’s the thing. Garfield’s book is considered in the FT, together with the artefact version of Letters Of Note, and Tom Standage’s Writing On The Wall: Social Media — The First 2,000 Years. The insightful article goes beyond Garfield’s assertion that the writing of a letter “opens a breadth of human emotion not found in any other form of communication beyond art or the novel.” His 25-year-old son’s long-distance relationship with a girl he met on holiday didn’t fizzle out because “email was too instant”. I exchanged letters with a Spanish girl I liked when I was about 16, and that exchange was over almost before it began. Not because it was too instant, but because we were young, and it didn’t really matter. If the couple had written letters and relationship had squibbed for those reasons, I could say it was because they couldn’t satisfy the youthful urgency of love (youth: irrelevant) by quickly composing an email and sending electricity straight through the eyes of their object of affection and racing along their neuron highways. Now, that’s exciting.

Andrew Hill’s FT article summarises Standage’s conclusion in Writing On The Wall: “People’s instinct to share, discuss, and transmit their deepest, most strongly held feelings, survives and adapts, even as technology changes.”

Well, that’s what I think.

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8 thoughts on “Return To Sender

  1. So, are you and Mrs. Stroke Bloke engaging in letter writing lately? Reminds me of a two interesting articles I’ve read lately on the nature of learning to read and write and it’s effect on your brain and cognitive development. This is as opposed to learning do this on a screen. Have a read and let’s correspond about it. Let me know what you think of the explanation that thinking about writing Kanji sets your brain off using the same neural circuity as actually physically writing the characters. See The Writing Revolution – and The Reading Brain in the Digital Age

  2. Form vs content. Sometimes it matters sometimes it doesn’t

    Led zeppelin I or pauls boutique on a crappy boom box with a cold beer on a sunny day? Killer – and I don’t think “should I replace my audio cables”

    But then. There’s this gem.

    And thanks for listening to the Beethoven!

    1. Thank you. Zep is always often when your speakers are threatened.

      And, great link. Have you thought about hooking up with Mike D and Ad-Rock to do a version of that?

  3. I still lament the passing of the letter. The tree-sacrificing kind.

    Email or text me your physical address, and I’ll mail you one.

    1. Oh, looks like someone’s getting possessive. I’m absolutely sure I’ve sent you a letter or two before. So you just have to be all British and wait patiently in the queue.

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