Maybe you aren’t the kind of person who believes in divine providence, but it would be hard to deny that two events that recently happened to me were not at least the universe sending me a direct message.
First, mistaking me for someone with money, the Red Cross sent me a letter containing 12 return address labels. Second, mistaking me for someone who uses the mail, Stamps.com sent me a code to redeem for 9 free stamps I could print at home.
The message could not be clearer. I’m supposed to write and send some letters.
So, of course, being a writer and a sometimes-academic, I couldn’t just say I’m going to go write a bunch of letters and let that be the end of it. Instead, I must talk about the history of letter writing, its current state, and what that means for the world as a whole. You ready?
And, of course, being me, I’m going to do these things all out of order.
It’s commonly observed that we don’t write letters as much as we used to.
This seems to bear out not just as something we say to each other as we lament the way the world has changed, but also in fact. Statistic Brain reports that we sent 268 billion letters in 1990. In 2014, that number was 141 billion, still a lot, but a 47% decrease. The New York Times reports that junk mail accounts for 48% of all mail and generated $17 billion for the Postal Service in 2011. The Postal Service still lost around $5 billion that year.
To that end, maybe you’ve noticed that the price of a first-class stamp keeps going up. You’d think that would help limit these losses, but as it turns out, the increases have largely been in line with inflation, meaning that for the last three decades stamps have cost roughly the same in 2016 dollars.
So, odds are that much of your mail will be junk mail and bills, seem expensive even if it’s not, and put you in an incredibly romantic mood. Just look at some of these quotes:
“Listening to her story, I was suddenly nostalgic for something I’d never had – the chance to be loved and known on a piece of paper.” – Hannah Brencher, “Why Letter Writing Still Matters in an Age of Digital Communication.”
“It takes time; instant communication has robbed us of our patience. A letter or postcard takes more time to write, more time to reach its destination and more time to hear back from the recipient. Writing a letter is a good way to stay on someone’s mind over a long period of time.” – Joe Matar, “Why You Should Stop Emailing – and Write a Letter Instead.”
Other times, we value the connections they bring us.
“A good, thoughtful letter is one of the nicest gifts we can give to our children when they leave home, to a friend who has experienced suffering or death, to an aging parent, or to a teacher who made a special contribution to our life. Pastors appreciate them, too.” – John R. Erickson, “The importance of writing letters.”
“ . . . I started reading his book. It begins by movingly describing a letter he received from a friend when his mother died last year. I read this with a guilty shock. I hadn’t written to John then. Why not? At what point in my apparently well-brought-up life did I suddenly think it was OK not to write to a bereaved friend?” – Charlotte Higgins, “The lost art of letter-writing.”
And, maybe not writing as many letters could cause our society to be viewed differently in the future.
“The decline in letter writing constitutes a cultural shift so vast that in the future, historians may divide time not between B.C. and A.D. but between the eras when people wrote letters and when they did not. Historians depend on the written record. Perhaps a better way of saying that is that they are at the mercy of that record.” – Malcolm Jones, “The History and Lost Art of Letter Writing.”
Maybe we’re worse off. Maybe we’re leaving a bad record of the time we spent here. After all, internet communities close all the time, their chat logs and forum posts lost forever. Even if they are preserved by a service like the Internet Archive, questions linger. Who was “Lettersrock97”? Does it matter if we know who they were? Are their opinions representative?
Of course, we keep better records about facts than we ever have. Wikipedia.org is a ready example of humans’ love for categorizing, recording, and describing.
But, one still has to wonder if historians are going to look back at this time and wonder how we felt. Maybe they’ll look at our Facebooks and Twitters and have everything they need to know. Or maybe these services will have been sued out of existence, as, improbably, seems to become more likely.
I don’t hold any particular responsibilities to the historians of the future. But, if I’ve done anything in this post, it’s build a case that letter-writing can be valuable. And here’s where the sort of sponsorship comes in.
The American Red Cross and Stamps.com have unknowingly provided me with an opportunity to send up to nine letters at no cost to myself. I could do something boring with that opportunity and send a bunch of letters to people I know. Or, I could make this something cool for my blog.
Here’s the deal. The first nine people to send me an email address at email@example.com with their postal address will get a personal letter sent to them. Maybe this interests you, or maybe this doesn’t, but I can tell you that 80 or so people view this blog in a given month, so I’m extending this opportunity to more than 1 in 10 of my readers. If you do send me an email, let me know if there’s anything, in particular, you’d like to hear about. I’ll keep all of your information private unless you have an express desire to have it shared on the Internet.
I’ll keep track of the requested letters right here.
Letters remaining: 9.