The letter is undeniably becoming a relic of the past, a trend that has been confirmed by the United States Postal Service’s (USPS) announcement on February 7 that first class mail delivery services will be reduced to five days per week in an effort to scale back the agency’s losses. Like e-books versus physical books, there is a certain nostalgia to receiving a handwritten letter, but one that we are much more willing to let go. With technology like text messages, Facebook, and email that enables people to communicate instantly across the globe, letters — particularly of the handwritten variety — appear to be time-consuming, antiquated and altogether pointless. Why would someone choose something that takes days to weeks over something that can be written, sent, and read almost instantaneously?
For as long as I can remember, I have been writing letters; for birthdays, for thank-yous, and for made-up celebrations like Grandparents’ Day. My mother was particularly strict about sending out a thank you to everyone who had sent me a gift for the holidays or my birthday; the rule was that I could not play with any of my new toys or go to the store to use my gift cards until my notes were written and ready to be put in the mailbox. I was also not allowed to use those mad-lib templates that said, “Thank you for the [blank]! I really look forward to [blank]. Love, [blank].” No, all of my cards had to be written out by myself and at least sound heartfelt, even if I was rushing so that I could break into my gifts.
Taking the time to write out cards every month (because there was always some event that needed to be recognized) used to be a pain when I was younger, but it is a practice to which I still adhere today, even without my mother standing over my shoulder and with the knowledge that I could easily save myself time and 46 cents by sending an email or perhaps an e-card. I have come to enjoy taking up a pen and mentally composing what I want to write before committing it to paper. It is a strangely calming activity, an experience I have yet to associate with the electronic equivalent.
Although they might be slower and low-tech in comparison to the various forms of communication available in the 2013, letters are something that I hope will not disappear like the USPS mail delivery days. I am always overjoyed, sometimes embarrassingly so, when I open my mailbox and find a card from friends or family, and I hope that they feel the same when they receive my letter of thanks or well wishes. If nothing else, the handwritten letter is an indicator that someone took time out of their day to write it, address it to you and walk it to their mailbox or post office, rather than tap out a few words on a computer or touch screen.
Consider the transcription of this letter from author Mark Twain to his wife, Olivia:
Hartford, Nov. 27/88
Livy Darling, I am grateful – gratefuler than ever before – that you were born, & that your love is mine & our two lives are woven & welded together!
Short and concise, this letter could easily be sent today over any form of communication; it even sounds like it could be adapted for a Twitter post, #soulmate. But there is something about the handwritten quality that makes this letter more meaningful than the twenty-five words that make it up. It makes it personal, genuine and ultimately unforgettable, and this is why I think writing letters should not be a forgotten practice of the past. Because unlike that 160-character text or Facebook wall post, a letter is tangible and regardless of the subject, you know that for at least for a moment, someone was truly thinking of you.