That’d be me, if I were a superhero. No ridiculous tights and cape, no backstory or idiosyncrasy, no gadgets–certainly no mask–just a manual typewriter, and the task of writing a letter. Appalling though my penmanship is, still, I am a good letter writer because I take it seriously–I would, after all, be mailing my whole self off to someone. You’d get a dense and lengthy letter from me if we were writing one another: newsy, inquisitive, self-deprecating, full of jokes and cartoons, the occasional poem–sometimes even original music. Chords. But I don’t write them anymore; neither, sadly, does anyone else. And if I told someone I was a letter man, rather than correctly attributing this to my being old school, I’d likely be asked–”In what sport?” Social media and a culture of instant gratification have injected a quaintness into the exchange of letters–that is, of course, if they have not made it absolutely obsolete.
Everyone well knows this. Is it any wonder that the United States Postal Service is slowly failing? Ask yourself: When was the last time you received a personal letter? Can you even remember? And which would you prefer–that, or any version of email via social media on a phone or computer? I, of course, hold with paper–precisely because you can hold it. And you can keep it. I have kept some letters for more than 30 years now, a few still folded in their envelopes. These artifacts resurrect not only their authors, but time and place both. They are tangible and, holding them, I can journey back to their origins. Try that with an email. Even if you printed and retained them, holding emails is an entirely different species of experience. I know this because my wife saved a whole binder of them from the time we lived in Cabo San Lucas, and these I read through about ten years ago. In my hands they were similarly dry and lifeless as leaves that have turned with autumn.
Alas–this digital age!
Yet it would be disingenuous not to mention any enjoyment of its benefits. Indeed, I just posted on Facebook a picture my mother emailed to me: My sister, father and nephew in Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium yesterday savoring the Bears’ 59-56 double-overtime victory over Colorado. This is undeniably fantastic, as are many of today’s instantly disseminated photographs. There are limits, however. Heart-warming as pets may be, I nevertheless easily tire of seeing snapshots of their various naps and hijinks. Rare is the image than can capture a pet’s essence–so a barrage of these is more of a disservice than anything else. Worse, though, is the onslaught of plated meals. Unless it’s abalone–in which case I’d be insanely jealous and would, in particular, not be desirous of seeing your dinner pictured–I could not possibly ever care what the waiter brought you. Call me incurious; hell, call me cantankerous. I want to see pictures of people–friends and loved-ones. But even this has its limitation. This, you can call the ubiquitous selfie. Enough already! Does nobody remember the idiom, “Familiarity breeds contempt?”
This is, in part, why–weirdly–I find it difficult sometimes to be Facebook friends with a number of my oldest and closest real life friends. It also explains how I can be good Facebook friends with mere acquaintances, some of whom I have never even met. These intolerable selfies, whose nickname entirely captures the self-absorption behind them, stand in stark contrast to the whole-self gift of the letter writer. A selfie requires no more than a thoughtless second; writing a good letter, on the other hand, might take several days.
But here’s a disclaimer for you: Even I have taken such a self-portrait. Once, in 1987, and with a camera that contained–ready?–film. This was no arm’s-length attempt. Rather–using the camera’s timer and a banked reflection off two full-length mirrors–I was simply curious if I could accomplish the shot. So: There exists a single printed copy of myself ostensibly talking on the telephone with Cal’s Sproul Hall to schedule fall classes 27 years ago.
So much is different now, though much remains unchanged. While technology has made communication vast and instant–it is now not uncommon to speak simultaneously with two different friends so far afield, say, as France and San Francisco–still, unsurpassed is the thrill of holding a letter from someone you hold dear.
A close second is the joy of reading the collected letters of some imposing personage of yesteryear. Always revealing, these consistently prove to be more insightful than any biography. For context and innumerable tiny detail, personal letters are a gold mine. Want to know more about–I don’t know–Ernest Hemingway? Read his collected letters. Can you imagine there will ever exist the collected emails of anyone alive now? We’ll only be left with a collage of selfies.
I do my best, every two weeks, to buck this hideous trend–which is why this column isn’t always a commentary on the newsworthy or a spate of opinion. I do my best, every two weeks, to write a letter–of sorts–to the reading public. I have given you news, been self-deprecating, jokesy, and the occasional poem has appeared here. Let’s just agree to leave cartoons and original music for later, maybe in a real letter.