As most of my friends could tell you, I’m a pretty active user of social media. My tumblr may not be the most prolific out there, but anyone I follow could tell you the frequency with which I like and reply to posts. I’m all over Facebook, and I’m thinking about signing up for Twitter. I may not be the model of a modern hip millennial, but I’m a pretty far cry from a Luddite or a technophobe.
It may come as something of a surprise, then, that my favorite form of long-term communication is the hand-written letter.
I like receiving letters. I like the feel of them in my hand, the weight of their pages, light but still perceptible. I like seeing people’s handwriting, matching letterforms to syntax. I like learning my friends’ approaches to errors, how they react to an encroaching margin. I like being able to live with the anticipation and mystery of an unopened envelope — a letter can’t be answered on the day of its arrival, so it doesn’t matter if you don’t open it the minute you receive it.
I like sending letters. I like clearing out the time to write them, marking out an hour or so to just Do One Thing, without the convenient distraction of another browser tab. I like the expansive, meditative mood I get into when I’m writing them — tidbits of news will be long dated by the time a reply arrives, but zooming out a bit and summing up an overview has a bit more staying power. I like the physicality of a pen gliding across paper, of seeing an empty page fill up with flowing scrawls. I like knowing that if they get shoved inside a shoebox and tucked away in a cool dry place for fifty years, they’ll probably be perfectly readable, unlike a desktop hard drive.
I like the content letters get out of me. I don’t like leaving lots of empty space, so unlike an e-mail which is always only as long as it is, I dig a little deeper and tell stories that might otherwise fall by the wayside. From what I can tell, many of my correspondents do this as well, and these little tidbits, the small and almost accidental windows into their lives, are sources of profound delight.
Much of this is rank sentiment. There’s no reason I can’t write the same way in a Facebook message as I do with a pen on the page. (I could even set myself character minimums if I really needed the goading.) Facebook and tumblr provide many little windows, with built-in ways for expressing appreciation for them. Knowing someone’s handwriting doesn’t really tell you anything new about them.
I am a creature of sentiment. I like many of the things I like without rhyme or reason. My goal is not to lead a life filled only with things defensible from first principles, to cut every trace of inefficiency or irrationality from what I do. I want to enjoy the ride, not streamline my journey to its end.
Letters aren’t for everything. I wouldn’t give up my ability to text my collaborators, to simultaneously chat with friends in Connecticut, Thailand, and Japan, to reblog trenchant commentary about the latest Marvel film — not for an infinite supply of postage stamps. Social media isn’t always and only a source of pure unblemished good, but I wouldn’t want to go back to the days where I had to rely on the postal system to hear about Ferguson. Letters aren’t for everything.
But the things they are for, they’re pretty good at. So if you can spare the time (and it’s certainly true not everyone can), maybe think about writing a letter to someone you love. It won’t heal all the broken places in the world, but it might just build a few islands of calm.
And if you’re a friend of mine: Can I have your address?