Since being in London I have sent letters and postcards to people only to message, email, or text them in the meantime, negating the effect of the news. It’s still nice to receive a physical letter, but I am finding that its communication value – at least in terms of timeliness – is pretty moot. How much effort should we put into preserving something for value’s sake, and how much should we just let progress (“a comfortable disease”*) run its course? I don’t have the answer by any means. There is a large part of me that loves and wants to preserve books (real books, not Nooks or Kindles or what have you) and physical crafts and handwriting and letters. Objects have value and weight, no matter how much we bang on about being an overly-materialistic society, or the convenience of modern technology.
It goes back to the roots of gifting, the need for a tangible symbol to seal an intangible relationship or pledge. I could jabber on about this for a while, having studied gift-giving from the medieval to the modern. But I'll condense it to a recent example of the importance of gifts: there's a reason that a DVD set and iPod given to the Queen as diplomatic gifts by the U.S. were derided by the public (though never by the polite recipient). We instinctively frown upon this because technology, however costly, does not feel personal. President Obama's recent gift to the Pope, a box of reclaimed wood from the first U.S. cathedral filled with seeds from the White House garden, was so much more relevant and meaningful because it had a connection to both giver and recipient, and contained both history and future. Clearly whoever is in charge of gift-giving at the State Department (a job I would love, by the way!) has stepped it up. Physical gifts and objects are more "real" than digital ones ever will be; they better fulfill the basic human need to touch and to interact. Similarly, handwritten notes will always create a greater sense of closeness to the other person than any typed text.
So I hope that actual letters – that you have to write and crease and seal and open and read and hold – will never become a thing of the past, regardless of the convenience of the internet. They are so much more intimate than a dashed off, easily-ignored text or email. And it says even more today that you are willing to take the time and expense to write something down and send it. So maybe rather than sinking into obscurity and obsolescence, letters will become the next thing we cherish, as with books and vinyl records, valuing them more because of their effort and rarity. Let’s just hope the hipsters don’t get wind of it.
*according to e e cummings, with whom I strongly agree.