The Loveliness of Letters

In a world of instant communication, we are tempted to dismiss letter writing as NBD.

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I am pleased do announce a new column here at My Favorite Catholic Things: Elizabeth Wise will be writing each month about "Letters of Consequence" that have come down to us - those written between lovers, friends, parents and children, masters and pupils, and saints and sinners. In this first column below, she discusses the lost art of letter writing. -Carrie Gress

By Elizabeth Wise

Think of the last time you set aside your cell phone, picked up a pen and paper, and wrote a bona fide letter to someone in your life. You might have shared a recent accomplishment, a newfound dream, asked them how they were, and inquired about making plans to see each other soon. Perhaps you simply signed the bottom of a birthday card, or jotted down a quick note to say thank you. After finishing this letter, you licked the envelope’s seal and placed a stamp in the corner, then dropped this small piece of yourself into the nearest mailbox, neither knowing exactly when they would receive the letter, nor if and when they would reply.

 Some people still write beautiful letters.

Some people still write beautiful letters.

Many are tempted to think this form of communication is entirely too impractical for the modern era. The process is labor intensive, deliberate, far from instantaneous, and requires patience. Certainly, in regard to time, letter writing is not the quickest or most effective way to exchange information.

Letter writing as pastime still seems quaint and idyllic, and something of a “dying art” with the advent of the millennial generation. In this technological age, memes, gifs, and emojis dominate the text threads of those of us under the age of 30, so much so that many can say they have never written a letter in their lives. The younger generation seeks to communicate with fast-paced humor; visual imagery replaces the need to construct a proper sentence, and there is never a sense of linguistic deprivation. This paradigm shift frames the act of writing a letter as a boring and perhaps pointless chore.

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The dying art of letter writing has not always been considered an art form— historically, the act of letter writing was simply a necessity for communication. From lengthy love letters to news from the frontlines, generations past relied on “snail mail” as the only method to make their affections known and to keep in touch with loved ones in faraway places. When telegrams and telephones came into the scene, these connections were perfunctory; letter writing was still the most economical. The every day men and women of past centuries most likely would have scoffed at the thought of their letters being regarded as a form of art. This was just a normal part of life; a letter was something that every literate person would have written and received regularly, for any occasion and purpose. To borrow a modern texting acronym, it was truly “NBD” (no big deal).

Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle souls; For, thus friends absent speak.
— John Donne in a verse letter to Sir Henry Woto, 1598

Nowadays, however, just one glance at a letter in a museum could take your breath away; the handwriting, the stationery, a beautiful stamp, the lengthiness akin to a handwritten novella—all of these aspects put our modern forms of communication to shame. In comparison to quick text messages, impersonal emails, and voicemails promptly erased, the act of writing a letter is indeed an art form that is in dire need of reviving.

 (Photo: Wikicommons)

(Photo: Wikicommons)

Carrie Gress