The fading art of letter-writing

WNYC’s Leonard Lopate caught my attention when he began this radio program about letter-writing by asking, “Can you remember the last time you sat down to write someone a letter that was more than just a note?” (My answer was: Yes! That very morning I had written a letter to my friend in Paris, even though I could have posted a note on her Facebook wall… or sent her an e-mail… or commented on her blog.)

What followed was an intriguing interview with the author of a book called Yours Ever: People and their Letters, which discusses the loss of these social and historical artifacts. Thomas Mellon, who has also written about diary-keeping, said he started this project 15 years ago when e-mail was just nascent. It evolved into an “elegy” to the genre, he said — which suggests that he thinks letter-writing is dead, though perhaps not beyond resuscitation.

Some other questions Lopate could have posed: Do you think that you’ll be re-reading old e-mails, text messages and Facebook posts some day in your golden years? Will your children be able to browse through your e-mails after you’re gone, to see what their parents were like as younger people? Are future scholars likely to delve into your old digital messages and revel in the valuable insights they offer?


  1. Dear Jennifer,
    Funny how this subject gets around. Just this weekend in the SUNDAY AGE Newspaper here in Melbourne, (March 28, 2010) there was a full page article devoted to this very subject.
    Glad I took a look at your page and, I did save it in my favorites. Gotta say, do keep up the good work.
    All the best!
    Eric in ‘Oz’

  2. “Do you think that you’ll be re-reading old e-mails, text messages and Facebook posts some day in your golden years?”
    YES for emails (I already do browse old emails, and arguably I’m not quite ‘golden’ yet), NO for text messages and Facebook posts.
    The difference between these technologies (for me anyway) is that email is an open technology and under my control. The others are proprietary and ‘in the cloud’.
    I have a copy of just about every email I have sent or received dating back to September 1992. Unlike letters I wrote BEFORE that date, the ink does not fade, the paper does not burn, the text is not locked up in some obsolete WordPerfect format or on a stack of decaying floppy disks. Rather, these messages are backed up, redundant, searchable, and accessible from anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. If I like, I could arrange to have them passed on and preserved after my death. If future scholars have any curiosity at all in my life and times, they’d have plenty of interesting data.

  3. Thanks for sharing the Age article, Eric. Starts out a bit melancholy but goes on to say a lot of interesting things, especially the Dickens and Darwin cases.
    If all historical archives were available online, there’d be less occasion for researchers to visit libraries… Improved access is good but drains context from the resulting work. Also, less travel means less fun!

  4. Sounds like some people have better control of their digital legacies than I do! Bring on the memoirs…
    Sounds like some people have better technical skills than I, too. Most of my e-mails through 2003 have been lost to various viruses or hard-drive dramas. I never did figure out how to transfer e-mails from, say, one Eudora inbox to another, anyway.
    Anything I have “in the cloud” is probably safer — though perhaps not from G-men, hackers and the Chinese. I’ve been routing my work Webmail and Hotmail through Gmail to Thunderbird, but these services keep changing server names and ports and security settings. I hardly know where my e-mails are now — maybe three places, maybe none.
    N.B.: Technology has not made my archiving any easier! I’d be better off just printing out the memorable e-mails (less than 1% of the whole, to be sure) and putting them in a shoebox.

  5. It seems that all our browsings, emails etc are being saved in digital format for posterity. 50 or 100 years from now our closely guarded secrets would be just a click of the mouse away. So let us not indulge in any activity which could make our grand children hang their heads in shame.

  6. Ever since technology has taken hold of our lives, Letter Writing has become a forgotten art. People are more at ease to email or SMS a friend than writing a letter. This has robbed the message of a personal touch.
    I still feel nostalgic, whenever I think of the long gone days, when at school we used to eagerly await the letters from home. Or jump with delight on receiving a B’day card from an old friend.

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