Words on Paper

Every morning Daisy the Dog and I go down to the edge of our short driveway and, while she watches for squirrels and any other four-legged neighborhood denizen on her friend-or-foe list, I located and pick up the daily newspapers.

I read two: the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. I share them with my wife. We each have favorite sections that act as antidotes to the mostly grim news radiating from the front page and, in the post, the Metro section, which could be retitled, “Why the District of Columbia is Really Messed Up.” I tend to read book reviews, editorials and op-eds, the Style section and cultural reviews. I’m also a fan of the Journal’s “A” heads–human interest articles that used to be positioned at the center of the front page. Now they’re somewhere at the bottom. I thank the grimy gods of journalism that the A head survived the Journal’s most recent page, content and staff reductions.

A few days ago, as I read a 618 page (with more than a hundred subsequent pages of footnotes and bibliography) biography of Samuel Beckett, I gave myself a moment of sadness for the loss of the letter, that thing some of used to write on paper, put in an envelope, add a stamp, put in a mail box and then wait, with some anticipation, for a reply.

I started writing letters when I spent a summer month backpacking around England. My best letters, written on that thin, blue “air letter” tissue, went to my girlfriend (who is now my wife). I had so many things to say and, because I believed I’d become a writer someday, I said those things as cleverly as I could. Later, I’d write to her in college on a typewriter. My letters could be five to ten pages–yes, I was lonely and I missed her very much. She’d write back, too, sometimes letters just as long. The letters stopped when we broke up.

I wrote letters to other people, some of whom were intimidated by how much I needed to write. I didn’t always get the response I anticipated but, for as long as the correspondence lasted, the letters created a relationship unlike those experienced on the telephone or in person.

I thought that this custom would translate to e-mail. It hasn’t. During the brief time that I taught in a high school, I wrote long e-mails. I may not have been the only one to do so, but I could not help but feel targeted when the principal had a faculty meeting in which he aimed to teach us all how to write e-mails. Long e-mails (anything that wouldn’t fit on the small screen that pops out) were deemed ridiculous, tedious, boring and dangerous because those taken up in the foment of prolix passion may let slip comments, cliches, controversy–that they may regret later.

I shortened my e-mails from then on, but, every once in a while, I let fly a big one.

From reading the Becket biography, and so many others, I see how a letter is a precious and precarious document for an historian. Precious, because it offers an insight into the heart and mind of a human being; precarious, because it is contextual, familiar and not always honest, or accurate.

Today I saw a full page advertisement in the newly slimmed down WSJ showing what appears to be a photographic reproduction of a handwritten letter written by “Cliff” referring to the suicide of a 16-year-old brother and asking for peace at Christmastime.

The ad is from the Paper and Packaging Board, which, I guess, is a trade group for the paper making industry that “asked five people whose lives have been touched by violence and cruelty to write Letters of Peace [capitalization original] that reflect their enduring faith in humanity.”

The purpose of the ad is to make you go to a website where more letters exist. The cynic in me reflects that the industry, fearing a decline in the sales pricey stationery, wants to revive the civilized custom of writing letters. If so, what a strange way to resurrect what has become an anachronism.

And yet, with more blogs being written than will ever be read, I find a quixotic nobility in this. Unlike Internet logorrhea, words committed to paper take up space. Things that take up space have the potential of hanging around and things that hang around more than fifty years become charming. Things that hang around longer can even become important, such as the 2,000 year old scraps of parchment found in the dry desert caves of Qum Ran now called the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Or they can be ironic, like the uncounted bits that have been inserted in the nooks and crannies of Jerusalem’s Western Wall, on the hope that God will read them.

What stories, wisdom, advice or message would you want to leave your children? Your children’s children?

A better question: assuming you write this letter for posterity, where would you put it so that the right people will find it and read it?

We need a National Association of Nooks and Crannies to sell us hiding places. And a Council on Maps and Trailmarking to provide hints.

And more than a little bit of hope that our words will be their words so many years from now.








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