I am still stinging with shame about a letter I just received. It came from one of my old high school teachers, a man with whom I have corresponded over the decades. Every Christmas, I’d send him a personal letter about my year, and every summer, I’d mail him an autographed copy of my newest book.
About six months ago, he wrote me a long, long letter sharing all the latest in his life. I set it on my desk, with every intention of replying. Because he doesn’t do email, I would have to actually write a letter and send it snail mail, so I delayed the task until I had a bit of time. The trouble was, time got away from me. I had to proof-read the galleys of my book, then I had to leave for China to bring my mother’s ashes to her hometown, then I went on book tour, followed by weeks of travel for various speaking engagements. In the meantime, that letter from my teacher got buried under other accumulating mail. I never did write him back.
A few days ago, after returning from my latest trip, I found a new letter from him in the bin of mail that the US Postal Service had held for me in my absence. He was hurt and upset that I had not answered his earlier letter. He asked if our friendship was dead. He assumed it must be, because I hadn’t responded, nor had I sent him my latest book. I immediately mailed him a book and a card of apology, but I’m still having sleepless nights about it. And I’m mulling over why, exactly, I didn’t write back sooner.
My crazy schedule is one reason. But a bigger reason, I think, is how much I’ve come to rely on email as a primary mode of correspondence, a convenience that’s so quick and immediate that it makes old-fashioned letter writing seem like a burden. Every morning, when I sit down to catch up on messages, I answer my email first. As tasks go, it’s the low-hanging fruit, something you can speedily accomplish. Letter writing? That feels like a far more ponderous task, so I put it off. And I put it off.
And before I know it, weeks and then months have gone by, and unanswered letters are still lying on my desk.
I, and people like me, are responsible for the impending death of the snail-mail letter. In this era of “Faster! Faster!”, we feel the urgency of accomplishing everything at top efficiency. We feel too harried to actually write with pen and paper, address the envelope, affix a stamp, and bring it to the post office.
And that’s a shame. Because years from now, all our emails, all those quickly dashed bits of information rendered to the electronic ether, won’t be around to enlighten our descendants. The death of the handwritten letter means that we, too — our thoughts, our memories, the way we press pen to paper — will vanish forever when we’re gone.