The Lost Art of Writing Letters

First off, I did a guest column on the Popgun Chaos blog.  Be sure to check out the other columns on the site because they are quite good.

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Do people write letters anymore?

My wife and I will be moving soon, and to help expedite the process, I was trying to decide which books to keep and which to sell.  One of the items in question was a set of The Letters of C.S. Lewis.  Lewis is one of my favorite authors, but the thought of reading letters seemed a bit uninteresting to me.  Sure, I’ve read great quotes from Lewis that appeared in letters, but as I began reading them (some written as far back as his childhood) I couldn’t quite see the point.  Childhood letters probably have limited appeal, primarily to the parents.  But, to give the book a fair hearing, I skipped to his college years.  It was interesting to read discussions on books he had read or refuting Christian thoughts (for at this point, Lewis was still an atheist).  But the letters became compelling when I got to the war years, specifically World War I.

In general, I know little about The War to End All Wars (quite an ironic misnomer).  Yes, I know about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, which led to nations honoring treaties of war like the falling of dominos.  I also know that much of the fighting was done via trench warfare.  Apart from one or two other items, that really does exhaust my knowledge.  World War II was usually more interesting, although I think you could make a case that they were really the same war with a brief intermission.  I’m digressing.

C.S. Lewis served in World War I in the Somerset Light Infantry.  He was deployed on the front in the Somme Valley.  Lewis stayed in touch with his father and his friends during this time and wrote about his experiences.  In a letter to his father, dated 4 January 1918:

“You will be anxious to hear my first impressions of trench life.  This is a very quiet part of the line and the dug outs are very much more comfortable than one imagines at home.  They are very deep, you go down to them by a shaft of about 20 steps: they have wire bunks where a man can sleep quite snugly, and brasiers for warmth and cooking.  Indeed, the chief discomfort is that they tend to get too hot, while of course the bad air makes one rather headachy.  I had quite a pleasant time, and was only once in a situation of unusual danger, owing to a shell falling near the latrines while I was using them.”

-Lewis, C.S. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis Vol. 1              HarperCollins 2004

Letters and diaries such as this are invaluable to historians and scholars.  The amount of physical detail and personal commentary helps us learn about the man and the experiences.  I have often wondered, in a society where text messages and Twitter become more common forms of communication, are we losing something of our heritage.  Are we losing the ability to write as Lewis did, relating our experiences in a meaningful, understandable way?

It was announced this year that the Library of Congress is going to archive Twitter.  This is a massive acknowledgement of the state of technology in our nation.  Preserving this form of communication gives massive insight into who we are as a people.  Even if there is nothing of worth in the Tweets, the very fact that we archive it is information upon which a sketch can be made.  Unfortunately, my fear is that we will be dismissed as a shallow generation.  Perhaps that would be an accurate analysis.

The amount of information we are providing for future historians is massive, perhaps even insurmountable.  But even with all this progress in leaving information and clues to our present identity, I wonder once more if “the letter” will pass away.  Will we find “The Collected Letters of _____”?  Tweets are informative, but they are mere soundbites compared to a letter.  Soundbites can be easily misused and mask true feelings and ideas. These are most-likely unfounded fears, but I still fear the loss of a great art, the very art of correspondence.

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