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The Fading Art of Slow Communication


May 29 2013
What letter writing reveals about our relationships—and ourselves

According to the U.N. telecon agency, the world now has approximately 6 billion cell phone subscriptions, which means there are nearly as many cell phones on the planet as people. Half a billion tweets get sent out into the universe each day, says Dick Costolo, CEO of Twitter. Earlier this year, Facebook announced that it has reached 1.06 billion monthly active users, 618 million of whom use the site daily.

Although the U.S. Postal Service delayed its plans to end Saturday mail delivery, it's clear our current modes of communication are continuing to outpace the handwritten letter. I find myself wondering about the broader implications of this newer, quicker technology. What will we miss out on as as micro-messages take over and letters increasingly become relics of the past?

When my grandparents moved into an assisted living facility, I went to their place to help them sort through their belongings. Armed with several large garbage bags, I walked with Grandma through room after room, sorting their things into piles to be donated, tossed, or given to family members.

By the time we got to the basement, we were both spent—physically and emotionally. Then, just as we were finishing up in the final room, we nosed around in the back of a closet and uncovered a huge trunk. I heaved out the metal box and dusted off the stenciled lettering on the front.

"Lieutenant Voiland," I read in a whisper. My grandfather. I looked at Grandma and saw that her hand was clasped over her mouth. We wrestled the stubborn hinges open, and I sucked in my breath when I caught a glimpse inside. "Letters," I said. Letters indeed—there were hundreds of them.

"From the war," Grandma told me. "I wrote to your grandfather every day." I looked in the chest, and sure enough, there were two large stacks of letters: the ones on the left, all in coordinating blue envelopes and addressed in Grandma's careful script; the ones the right, mismatched and tattered, no doubt scrawled by my grandfather when he could spare a moment amid his missions on the European front.

The letters would have been treasure enough a generation ago, but now, as handwritten letters increasingly become things of the past, they carried even more of an aura of sanctity about them.

British writer John O'Connell, in his book, For the Love of Letters: The Joy of Slow Communication, describes the countercultural and increasingly unnatural act of handwriting a letter:

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