Likely there are many in the world today who take no cognizance of the sad state that letter writing has come to. The US Postal Service is losing money hand over fist while email works just fine to keep the wheels and cogs turning and to help people stay in touch. Of course, email has created the desire for further abbreviation and additional shortcuts, anything to make it happen NOW, to bring ever faster gratification. Then we come to text messaging which has made of ‘written’ communication an ugly half-breed type of expression. Yeah, say what you have to say in 140 characters. Do you suppose such practices are leading people (especially the young) to think in short bursts of half-language? Finally we have the gradual loss of cursive writing in schools, prompting visions of a future where people can read only printed words and like computers, everything is a matter of communication by ones and zeroes. How does that old line go? They’ll have to pry my fountain pen from my cold dead fingers.
Spent part of this Wednesday reading and looking over a short book on the art of letter writing, one sent by a friend who knows my fondness for the handwritten word. My impressions of the book are not all glowing however, since the overall mark of Writing Letters with Pen & Ink is a tad too Victorian for my own ideas on letter writing. Modern letter writing can be a vibrant experience without struggling to making your letters look like something from the writing desk of Mrs Hemphill-McPherson-Fitch. Relevant to the notion of a well-rounded ‘O’ and other graceful handwriting tips, consider this quote from modern novelist Jeffrey Deaver:
‘Handwriting is a part of a human being. It’s like our sense of humor or imagination. It’s one of the only things about people that survives their death. Writing can last for hundreds of years. Thousands. It’s about as close to immortality as we can get. Whatever somebody wrote is a reflection of who they are. It doesn’t matter how the words are made or what they say; it doesn’t matter if you made a mistake, or if the words you wrote are nonsense. Just the fact that someone thought of the words and their hands put those thoughts on paper is what counts. Your handwriting is a fingerprint of your heart and mind.’
On each of the pages in Writing Letters with Pen & Ink are quotes from prominent writers and others who have or had a few telling ideas on the art of letter writing…
Writing by hand, mouthing by mouth: in each case you get a very strong physical sense of the emergence of language…print obliterates it, type has no drawl. — William Gass, writer
Life would splinter asunder without letters. — Virginia Woolf
More than kisses, letters mingle souls;
For, thus friends absent speak. — John Donne
Machines have no grace. It cannot make a flourish, vary the thickness of a line, or tantalize the reader with a lapse into an indecipherable but lovely style. A good penman can make rivers that race to the sea, rivers as wild and dizzy as a flume in the Alps, as choppy as the Isarco, as wide and smooth as the Tiber at Ostia, or as deep as the Po where it rolls into the Adriatic. — Mark Helprin, writer
Like their modern counterparts, ancient envelopes were intended to protect the documents they contained and to ensure confidentiality. Most materials used for the document itself—papyrus or parchment, for example—were also physically suitable for its wrapper, and would have been close at hand. The Babylonians even encased their cumbersome clay tablets in thin sheets of clay that were crimped shut and then baked…the custom eventually developed of simply folding and sealing a letter in such a way that no outer wrapper was necessary. This was especially practical when paper was relatively expensive…the use of envelopes was discouraged in England before 1840 by the fact that postal costs were assessed by the sheet. Any form of wrapper, therefore, “would have resulted in double postage being charged.” — Joe Nickell, historical document consultant
If letters did not exist, what dark depressions would come over one! When one has been worrying about something and wants to tell a certain person about it, what a relief it is to put it all down in a letter! Still greater is one’s joy when a reply arrives. At that moment a letter really seems like an elixir of life. — from The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon
The two quotes below are favorites of mine not found in Writing Letters with Pen & Ink:
MILLIMANT: O ay, letters—I had letters—I am persecuted with letters—I hate letters—no body knows how to write letters; and yet one has ’em, one does not know why—They serve one to pin up one’s hair.
WITWOUD: Pray, Madam, do you pin up your hair with all your letters: I find I must keep copies.
MILLIMANT: Only with those in verse, Mr Witwoud. I never pin up my hair with Prose. — from Act II, Scene 2 of William Congreve’s play, The Way of the World (1700)
An odd thought strikes me: — we shall receive no letters in the grave. — from The Life of Samuel Johnson