Recently I took some guests to a dinner. Unsurprisingly, given what marvellous people they are, both sent me hand-written thank-you letters. Similarly, my daughter, who is currently volunteering in Sri Lanka, loves to receive letters in the post from her grandparents. They’re good reminders that there’s nothing quite like receiving a proper letter in the post. Every stroke of the pen leaves an imprint of the writer’s personality in a way that no electronic communication can. As A S Byatt said in Possession: “Only write to me, write to me, I love to see the hop and skip and sudden starts of your ink.”
On the other hand, I’ve never been much of a fan of emails. They arrive at all times of the day and night and seemingly demand one’s instant attention. They are often written in haste which, in turn, encourages both bad grammar and idiomatic abbreviations. (eg ‘please let me know if you can make the F2F by COP tomorrow. BW. Sam’). They are not good at conveying irony. They’re either too long or too short. And they often come with attachments. Email even kills conversation. We’ve all seen examples of people in the same room emailing each other. Email, far from liberating us from the drudgery of work, has made our lives considerably more stressful. Man is born free but everywhere he is on email.
Emails tend to be both transitory and transactional. They require of their recipient action rather than thought. Likewise, the author perhaps rarely takes the time to consider the context of the overall communication message into which their email falls. Too little reflection goes into how the messages will be received. Communication is two-way and that includes writing.
When, not so long ago, I moved jobs I went through all my emails to see what was of value. The answer was that the vast majority were merely run-of the-mill work-related stuff; some were of vague importance; but only a few were of any real value. That was, of course, partly the nature of the work but it was also indicative of how we communicate with each other. I don’t suppose that many publishers would be in the market for “The collected emails of …” Contrast that with some of the great collections of letters. Recent good examples include Lady Diana Cooper’s letters to her son, Dear Monster, and the laugh out loud letters of Roger Mortimer, Dear Lupin. Recently I’ve discovered Rilke’s extraordinary Letters to a Young Poet.
On the other hand, I am quite a fan of Twitter, Whatsapp, and the like. Used well, both can convey messages and thoughts succinctly and efficiently. For those of us who have a tendency, as Disraeli said of Gladstone, to occasionally be “…inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity”, the discipline of forcing ourselves to convey our thoughts in under 140 characters can be quite good. I once sat next to a well-known journalist who was tweeting from the event we were both attending. She first wrote out her thoughts by hand on a note book. She then crossed out certain words and reformed the sentences. Then she wrote out her final version. Finally, and only then, did she type it into Twitter and press send. Writer, sub-editor, editor, and compositor all in one. The result was a carefully considered and well-written observation.
I don’t believe that electronic communications per se are the problem. It’s just that email is a blunt instrument. Communication is too important to be fired off without taking the time to think through the real nature of the words. Brevity forces contemplation. As Pascal said: “I have made this letter longer than usual, because I lack the time to make it short”. Likewise, the very act of holding a (fountain) pen requires us to slow down, hear our own voice, and watch it emerge through our hands and onto the paper.
Perhaps letter writing will follow vinyl records and real books into the great digital dustbin in the sky. Certainly, sad though it is, I doubt whether we’ll see Facebook spending $19bn buying Basildon Bond and Parker pens. Nevertheless, I hope that as our obsession with email reaches its nadir, whatever comes next will prove to be a far more effective communications channel.