E-mail and Twitter are all very well, but nothing beats the joy of receiving an old-fashioned handwritten letter. Jerry Langton asks what we can do to revive this dying art. I really hate to disagree with William Shakespeare. But when the Immortal Bard wrote the words "brevity is the soul of wit," he had never dealt with Twitter. And he most certainly didn't have to put up with the 17th-century equivalent of a tweet such as the one I recently received (the names have been changed to protect the innocent):
"It's a boy! William Joseph was born @ 931 am wghs 7 lb 15 oz healthy looks just like dad except for blu eyes & dimples, mom doing fine." Don't get me wrong. I'm not against Twitter (or Shakespeare). I use Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn with stunning frequency. And I suppose what I received from Nick and Erin (William Joseph's parents) was no worse than the traditional notice in the announcements column of a newspaper, though it did feel kind of cold and impersonal.
But Erin made it all better. About a week after the birth, I received the most unexpected thing - a personal letter, my first in years. In two handwritten pages, Erin used her abundant wit and depth to describe the birth, introduce me to her son and thank me for my recommendations when it came to paediatricians and pushchairs. It was perhaps only 500 words (significantly more than the 140 characters Twitter allows or the 420 on Facebook), but it was one of the nicer gifts I have received. Despite how busy she was as a new mother, Erin had found the time to find a pen and some paper, write the letter, stick it in an envelope, lick and affix a stamp and put it in a postbox. It was really touching.
And increasingly rare. No major postal services keep hard statistics on personal mail as opposed to business mail, because it's hard to determine which is which. But, look at it this way: 10 years ago, the United States Postal Service delivered three billion postcards with stamps on them (presumably placed there by humans) and 2.3 billion presorted postcards (those handled by machines). In 2008, stamped postcards had fallen to 1.8 billion, while presorted had risen to 3.6 billion.
So why aren't people writing to each other any more? Charles Apple, an American design consultant and instructor currently working in South Africa, has a theory. "E-mail is a lot quicker, of course," he said. "And, naturally, there's the free factor; e-mail doesn't cost you anything - on top of what you're already paying your ISP, that is." But writing a letter is not really all that time-consuming, and it's not that expensive. It costs just Dh3 to Dh6 to post a letter overseas, depending on the weight, and it normally arrives in a week or so.
But even people such as Charles Apple - who regularly uses social networking sites and is so tech-forward that he's been blogging for about eight years - appreciate "real mail" more than its electronic counterpart. "Most of all, though, I'm probably just old fashioned. The more I use e-mail and Facebook messages, the more I also like to deal with the good ol' hard copy," he says. "It's as if paper restores some kind of cosmic balance to the karma of modern communication."
He also points out that people take a lot more care in what they write on paper. "A lot of e-mailers use shorthand or sentence fragments to the point where their message can be difficult to understand. And text messages, I really hate the abbreviated way the SMS freaks talk. As long as you can 'get' it, it's not a problem, but receiving a text message that I need help to translate just makes me angry. So it's not so much the written word on paper that I prefer, it's language used by someone who can articulate herself."
But he admits he gets few letters these days, despite having friends and family all over the world. And most of them come from his mother, a postmaster. "We have to correspond via mail," he says. "She won't use e-mail - despite the fact that I'm 13,000 kilometres away." So if snail mail is cheap, easy and people appreciate it, why don't people write more often? It's probably a form of writer's block. Think about it. Writing 140 or 420 characters that will be forgotten right away poses little threat. But writing lots of words down on paper that will be kept - especially now that people receive so few letters and prize them so much - can be intimidating.
But you probably shouldn't be too self-conscious. Kurt Vonnegut once advised any blocked writer to tell himself or herself that they were writing to just one person - with a letter you're usually already doing that. And the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Anna Quindlin said: "People have writer's block not because they can't write, but because they despair of writing eloquently." Don't worry about not being eloquent. That's not what people are looking for in a letter. Instead, give your family and friends something truly personal and unique. Just sit down, grab a pen and write them a letter.