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Romancing the Letter

February 5, 2010

I recently had a conversation with a friend about the romance of letter writing. He is a Eudora Welty scholar and has spent countless hours poring over archives of her correspondence in Mississippi. He remarked how her letters, even though she sent at least one a day, seemed so carefully crafted. On the contrary, he noted how we so casually toss off e-mails with little thought or planning. We both recognized the romance behind letter writing though we’re both, supposedly, digital natives.

Don DeLillo, who still writes on the manual typewriter he bought second-hand in 1975 does not much care for e-mail. Responding to the question whether he uses e-mail he said:

I do not. I think email encourages communication that wouldn’t otherwise take place. It may require a response that I may not be willing to execute.

Much has been written, no doubt, on the often too-terse use of e-mail (including this recent article from The Book Bench), but one shouldn’t too hastily write it off an emotionless communication tool. As Halford notes in the linked article, many cube-dwellers use constant net-based communication throughout their workdays to facilitate better relationships with their friends and family.

The talk of e-mail v. letter writing quickly wandered to a discussion of the digitization of literary archives. Is there a more romantic ideal than a literature scholar devoting hours to scrutinize stacks and boxes of paper to discover the one key document for her argument? It is certain that the romantic notion of archive searching is diminished by the use of digitized keyword searches, but the product of the searcher is undoubtedly be richer.

For me, the ideal of dusting through musty-sweet stacks of letters and scribbled notes is lovely, but I’ll give that up for universal availability and ease any day. The more open and free information available the better for everyone.

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