The lost art of letter-writing

In the summer of 1979 I had been packed off to camp in Maine, where the licence plates all say Vacationland and where I’ve never been so miserable, before or since. I was 11. My sufferings (you can imagine, right? I was the kid who hated team sports and longed for it to pour with rain so I could sit on my bunk and read) were exacerbated because my parents were spending that summer in England, a country I loved — a country I hoped I might live in one day, if I was very lucky indeed.

It was, however, at least in part, a business trip: my mother’s job was answering all fan mail for The Muppet Show. In 1979, two years into the show’s run, there was a very great deal of it. The show itself was filmed in England, hence the trip; while she was there my mother wrote a note to Jim Henson. She was inviting him to lunch on August 3 at The Connaught; she really hoped he could join her and my dad, because they would be having lunch with Alan Coren: “Ed. PUNCH. A lovely man.”

When I saw this letter not long ago — thanks to Karen Falk, archivist for The Jim Henson Company — I e-mailed my old pal, Times columnist Giles Coren. “Did we know our parents had lunch together?” I asked. No indeed, we did not: but now we did, all thanks to a letter.

My e-mail to Giles is still at the bottom of my inbox: but 33 years from now, will anyone be able to retrieve it? I doubt it. The chances of my son being able to write to Giles’s daughter (“Did we know our parents sent each other a lot of quite boring e-mails?”) are slim indeed: digital technology moves faster than preservation allows. Looked up anything on your 5¼in floppy disks, lately? Quite.

While my mom was writing notes to Jim Henson, my dad was writing letters to me — letters, drawings, cartoons, arriving in my summer camp mailbox nearly every day, the stalwart paper pillars of my morale; and later, when I did move to England, the flow of letters, now across an ocean, became thicker, faster, a river, a flood of words. There they are, still in their airmail envelopes, all my letters saved carefully by my parents, all their letters saved carefully by me. Looking through them, events I’d thought long gone from my memory return: life leaps up from the paper, the past no longer, for an instant, the past.

It’s no wonder that as we become lost in the thicket of ones and zeros that make up our text messages, our e-mails, our tweeting, tumblring and facebooking, we long for a dip in the old-fashioned river of words on paper. Things were better in the olden days, weren’t they, when you wouldn’t have been typing with your thumbs but rather dipping a leisurely quill into a pot of ink in order to set down your considered thoughts … or were they?

As John O’Connell notes in his wry and touching new book, For the Love of Letters, the past is always perceived to be better than the present, whatever the present holds. The journalist A. G. Gardiner, writing towards the end of the 19th century, remarked that “in the great sense letter-writing is no doubt a lost art. It was killed by the Penny Post and modern hurry.”

So it’s as well to be a little careful of nostalgia; if only because our paleolithic ancestors spraying ochre over their hands in the darkness of a cave probably had many of the same feelings. It’s part of the human condition. And yet we are clearly in a moment where writers, certainly, wish to recall that old world of paper and ink. Looking through my own letters I’m struck first by how legible my handwriting was, once upon a time — and how I was clearly able to write pages and pages without strain, something I know I couldn’t do now.

Then I can see my move into technology: a typewriter first, the little manual I carted around with me everywhere; the distinctive dot-matrix of my Amstrad as I headed off to college (remember how you could go and make yourself a cup of tea and a piece of toast while it laboured to save your work?); and later, my handwriting again, already much worse, now on paper to be faxed back and forth across the sea. I see myself changing as I see those different scripts, but I come clearest to myself in pen and ink.

No wonder the subtitle of Philip Hensher’s new book is The Lost Art of Handwriting and Why it still Matters. Hensher traces, with a light touch and some David Foster Wallace-style footnotes, the development of penmanship and the various crackpot theories evolved to teach it. (I always held my pen “wrong” when I was at school, and was made to write with a little triangular rubber thingy shoved on to my pencil to correct my grip; it didn’t work.) But what comes out most clearly in the book is how the hand stands in for the person. “If you look at a page of Dickens’s writing, the overpowering impression is one of energy and fury,” Hensher writes; and he goes on to remark how often the “the act of writing, of forming letters, acts as an impetus for the plot in the great Dickens novels”. I’d add that the swiftness and ease of modern communication is a great bane to 21st-century novelists: perhaps this accounts, in part, for the popularity of historical novels. What would have happened to the story, after all, if Odysseus had been able to send Penelope a text?

Writing with a pen on paper is very different, physically, from typing: certainly different from typing on a screen, as I am now: these screen-words can be made to vanish as if they’d never existed. At the very end of his book O’Connell reproduces a letter to a friend, written in answer to a letter of condolence after the death of his mother, and part of its power lies not only in the sight of the author’s hand but also in his changes. “Wanted” changed to “meant”; “was” to “happens”; “things” to “states of mind”. These tiny alterations allow the reader (the illicit reader, for this letter is not for us even though the author has allowed us to see it) real glimpses into the processes of the writer’s mind. You will pause and ask yourself what the difference is between these words, why one phrase should be chosen, on second thought, over another.

What’s odd, perhaps, is that while letters, and the pens they’ve been written with, might soon be items displayed in a museum of ancient technology, paper threatens to bury us. The average office employee in the West, Ian Sansom reveals in Paper: An Elegy, uses more than 10,000 sheets of paper per year; if you live in the United States you consume about 750lb (340kg) of paper annually.

We’re stuck in the stuff, though what flies out of the printer and photocopier is not the glorious watermarked paper of the past.

Yet, once again comes a reminder that our past was someone else’s present: in 1221 the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II issued a decree declaring that all documents written on paper were invalid: they would not last; they were ephemeral.

Indeed, a couple of hundred years before this decree was issued, an unknown scribe set down (on vellum, which is made not of rag or wood pulp but sheepskin) the epic poem we now call Beowulf, which we consider the foundation of our literature, and yet it was nearly destroyed in a fire in the early 18th century. There is no other copy: it’s fair to say that Frederick had a point.

Scissors cut paper. But: paper wraps stone. Humanity’s story, itself the tiniest fraction of the Earth’s story, is a scrawl across time. On stone, on clay, in ink, on paper, on screen. Where will writing go next? How will readers of the future access what we call the present day?

For when the lights go out — and they will, someday — no matter how hard electronic archivists work to transfer one format on to the next and preserve our ephemeral e-texts, we’ll be back to ink. Or blood. They’re really much the same, after all.