Solnit’s nostalgia

Rebecca Solnit writes,

Those mail and newspaper deliveries punctuated the day like church bells. You read the paper over breakfast. If there were developments you heard about them on the evening news or in the next day’s paper. You listened to the news when it was broadcast, since there was no other way to hear it. A great many people relied on the same sources of news, so when they discussed current events they did it under the overarching sky of the same general reality. Time passed in fairly large units, or at least not in milliseconds and constant updates. A few hours wasn’t such a long time to go between moments of contact with your work, your people or your trivia.

You opened the mail when you came home from work, or when it arrived if you worked from home. Some of the mail was important and personal, not just bills. It was exciting to get a letter: the paper and handwriting told you something, as well as the words….

Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the unnuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat. I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deep zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.

Solnit is one of the finest writers of her generation, so it’s a bit sad to see her recycling these tired complaints. Even if every word of her essay is true, it has been said thousands of times already. Sven Birkerts got it all into The Gutenberg Elegies in 1994, and since then people have just been doodling variations on his themes.

But here’s the problem I have with all screeds of this particular type. If you happen to be old enough to remember the days of letter-writing that Solnit limns so nostalgically, I invite you to perform the following thought-experiment:

  • Estimate the number of letters you wrote in a given year.
  • Estimate the number of letters you meant to write, planned to write, knew you ought to write, and yet never quite got around to writing.
  • Calculate the ratio of those numbers.

In Solnit’s imagination, every brief email or telegraphic text we write today would thirty years ago or more have been a letter. But a moment’s reflection shows that that’s not true. People send emails who never would have gotten around to writing letters or even making phone calls; people (mostly younger ones) who find email too frictiony a medium might send a hundred texts a day. If we’re going to understand how these technologies are changing us, we need to make the right comparisons: not one long hand-written letter to one brief email, but one long hand-written letter to several emails, or dozens of texts exchanged with multiple people in a given day.

An average twenty-year-old today writes far, far more to his or her friends than the average twenty-year-old of any time in human history. His or her experience is remarkable primarily for how textual it is, how many written words comprise it. We should start by acknowledging that fact, and if we go on to form a critique, we should have a clearer-eyed view of the past as well.

All that said, there are some good points about distraction and the alternatives to distraction in Solnit’s essay; I’ll try to write about those another time. But the nostalgia here is really problematic.


Thomas Mallon has collected a book of letters, and laments the loss of letter-writing culture. Louis Bayard thinks things may not be all that simple:

There is, in short, a reflexive melancholy to Mallon’s self-appointed mission, and I’m not convinced that all his belletristesse is merited. (Then again, waiting for the mailman has always struck me as a dubious pleasure.) When I sift through my past week’s electronic in-box, I find easily half a dozen messages that qualify as letters in every traditional sense. They are coherently structured, written with care and design. They enlighten, they illuminate, they endear. They even follow the old epistolary ritual of signing off (not “yours ever,” but some venerable variant: “yours” . . . “cheers” . . . “all best” . . . “xo”). My e-mail may not ascend to the level of Madame de Sévigné, but then, neither did Madame de Sévigné all the time.More to the point, these messages would probably never have come my way if the senders had been obliged to take out pen and paper. Indeed, it is the very facility of electronic communication that makes the Luddite soul tremble. When Mallon complains that e-mail has “made the telegram’s instant high dudgeon affordable to all,” it is clear that the access troubles him as much as the dudgeon. Look at me! I’m a belletrist, too! But does the relative ease of an e-mail’s composition necessarily detract from its value? Are postage stamps a bona fide of literary intent?

I’m reminded of Alex Beam’s regret that “the 25-cent paperback” somehow cheapened reading. Here again, we see the value of reading and writing yoked to an economics of scarcity. Sad, and wrong.

“Please do not write to me again.”

while we’re on the subject of the difficulties of the writing life, here’s another great Letters of Note entry, this one reproducing the form letter that Robert A. Heinlein sent in reply to every letter he received:

Robert A. HeinleinCare of Mr. Lurton Blassirigame60 East 42nd Street, Suite 1131New York, N.Y. 10017
Dear Sir/Madam/Ms./MissAn ever-increasing flood of mail forced me to choose between writing letters and writing fiction. But I read each letter sent to me and check its answer.( ) Thanks for your kind words. You have made my day brighter.( ) You say that you have enjoyed my stories for years. Why did you wait until you disliked one story before writing to me?( ) Renshaw: Saturday Evening Post, You’re Not As Smart As You Could Be, April 17th, 24th, and May 1st, 1948.( ) Essay Mental Telegraphy, Mark Twain’s Works, Harper & Brothers( ) Don’t send books to be autographed; too many have failed to reach me. Registering or insuring is no answer; the post office is a 30-mile round trip.( ) Story ideas come from everywhere and anything & writers are self-taught. The book WRITER’S MARKET tells how to prepare manuscripts & lists markets.( ) My agent handles all business; your letter has been sent to him.( ) I don’t discuss my colleagues’ works or my own. A novelist writes from many viewpoints; opinions expressed even by a first-person character are not necessarily those of the author. Fiction is sold as entertainment, not as fact.( ) The item you want is herewith/not available/: Ask your reference librarian.( ) I don’t sell books. All my books are in print & can be bought or ordered at any bookstore or directly from publishers. Bookstores have “in-print“ lists.( ) I get 4 or 5 or more requests each week for help in class assignments, term papers, theses, or dissertations. I can’t cope with so many & have quit trying.( ) It is not just for a student’s grade to depend on the willingness or capacity of a stranger to help him with his homework. I am ready to discuss this with your teacher, principal, or school board.( ) Science fiction: stories that would cease to exist if elements involving science or technology were omitted. For full discussion see my lecture in THE SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL, Advent:Publishers. Chicago.( ) Who’s Who in America; Encyclopaedia Britannica 1974; IN SEARCH OF WONDER, chapter 7, Damon Knight, Advent:Publishers; SEEKERS OF TOMORROW, chapter 11, Sam Moskowitz, World Publishing Company; Current Biography magazine; reference books about authors. I don’t discuss private life, politics, religion, philosophy( ) Your question: Yes/No/No comment/My publishers announce new works/( ) Please do not write to me again.( ) Thanks for the stamped & addressed envelope — a rare courtesy today.( ) Pressure of work causes me to avoid interviews, questionnaires, radio & television appearances, public speaking.( ) For legal reasons I do not read unpublished manuscripts.( ) Don’t plan to call at our home; we work very long hours every day of the year.( ) Your letter was most welcome! — loaded with friendliness and with no requests or demands. You suggested that no answer was expected but I must tell you how much it pleased me. I wish you calm seas, following winds, and a happy voyage through life.Sincerely Yours,Robert A. Heinlein, by __

Note that even missives in the final category, which elicited such gusts of praise from Heinlein, still got no personal response. This is even better than “Edmund Wilson regrets.”

more about email

Continuing the email theme, here’s a familiar lament from Megan Marshall: email is so impersonal in comparison to handwritten letters:

“Please keep me alive with letters,” wrote V.S. Naipaul in 1952 from Oxford to his sister Kamla in Trinidad. Nineteen and devastated by the rejection of his first novel, he was suffering from a loneliness so severe it resulted in a nervous breakdown. Maybe Naipaul wouldn’t have felt so lonely if he and Kamla could have Skyped regularly or filed updates for each other and scads of “friends” on Facebook. Or would Vido have felt even worse? Is the virtual friend any more than a tease when genuine comfort is needed? Please keep me alive with your e-mails — ? It’s an appeal only Google could love.

So when people are separated from their loved ones, why do they Skype or email or IM instead of writing letters? Are they just stupid? Or do they want their loneliness to be assuaged now rather than three days from now?

Many years ago I spent a summer teaching in Nigeria, and I missed my wife very badly. I wanted to hear her voice. So I caught a ride to the nearest city, Ilorin and found a telephone office. It consisted of a desk with a clerk who took down your information and collected your money, and a set of five or six booths with telephones. I waited a few minutes for my turn, got a phone, and (through a scratchy and echo-filled connection) got to talk to Teri and find out that she was well and tell her that I was well.

Perhaps a letter would have been more romantic in the eyes of future generations — and we might well treasure, in our old age, letters we had exchanged then. Those are considerations. But at the time I wasn’t thinking about any of that, because I missed my beloved. If email or IM had been available I would have used that, and Skype video would have been best of all. So sue me.

(Also, shouldn’t Marshall at least acknowledge that this lament has been written several thousand times since the invention of email?)

the Republic of Letters

Here’s an excellent article by Robert Darnton, about which I will have more to say later. But for now here’s a taste:

The eighteenth century imagined the Republic of Letters as a realm with no police, no boundaries, and no inequalities other than those determined by talent. Anyone could join it by exercising the two main attributes of citizenship, writing and reading. Writers formulated ideas, and readers judged them. Thanks to the power of the printed word, the judgments spread in widening circles, and the strongest arguments won. The word also spread by written letters, for the eighteenth century was a great era of epistolary exchange. Read through the correspondence of Voltaire, Rousseau, Franklin, and Jefferson — each filling about fifty volumes — and you can watch the Republic of Letters in operation. All four writers debated all the issues of their day in a steady stream of letters, which crisscrossed Europe and America in a transatlantic information network. I especially enjoy the exchange of letters between Jefferson and Madison. They discussed everything, notably the American Constitution, which Madison was helping to write in Philadelphia while Jefferson was representing the new republic in Paris. They often wrote about books, for Jefferson loved to haunt the bookshops in the capital of the Republic of Letters, and he frequently bought books for his friend. The purchases included Diderot’s Encyclopédie, which Jefferson thought that he had got at a bargain price, although he had mistaken a reprint for a first edition. Two future presidents discussing books through the information network of the Enlightenment — it’s a stirring sight. But before this picture of the past fogs over with sentiment, I should add that the Republic of Letters was democratic only in principle. In practice, it was dominated by the wellborn and the rich. Far from being able to live from their pens, most writers had to court patrons, solicit sinecures, lobby for appointments to state-controlled journals, dodge censors, and wangle their way into salons and academies, where reputations were made. While suffering indignities at the hands of their social superiors, they turned on one another.

By “Letters” these figures did not mean epistles, though obviously they produced plenty of those, but rather Writing, humane learning, what we might call “literature” in the broadest sense of the word. (They used the word “literature” quite differently than we do. To us it means — more or less — poetry, fiction, drama, and some kinds of essay; to them it meant the scope of a person’s reading, especially in the classics and the best moderns. “He is a man of great literature” is a characteristic phrase of the period: it means “he is exceptionally well-read in the best books.”) Anyway, as I said, more on all this later. But read the whole essay.

the age of correspondence

Fred Wilson says that we have entered an “age of correspondence” because now we write so much more than we talk on the phone. This has been noted before: if the telephone brought to an end the great age of letter-writing, a different kind of writing has been created by the age of email and text-messaging. There are a lot of things that could be said about this, and I’ll probably say some of them later, but in this post I just want to reflect on one thing: the anxiety this situation is causing libraries and archives — the institutions that collect the correspondence of famous people. Fifty years ago those custodians worried that the telephone was going to eliminate correspondence, that the revelatory letters of great men and women were going to be replaced by electrical signals that vanish into the air, never to be captured, irrecoverable. And there’s no doubt that people wrote less in the Telephone Age; but plenty of correspondence has remained for archives to collect and scholars to study, especially among writers. One has to suspect that many authors kept writing letters precisely in order to create a future archival presence for themselves. Don’t think they’re not aware of such things: even in the eighteenth century Sir Horace Walpole, one of the great letter-writers of that or any other day, knew perfectly well that his letters would eventually be collected and published. And maybe authors today are carefully preserving their emails in Walpoleian fashion — scholars hope so. But even if they are, it’s hard to tell what this means for the archivists. Even if an author wills her collected correspondence to a library, how will that be done? Will the executor of her estate email a zipped folder of text files to the head librarian? And then will the libraries hoard such collections, making them available only to the few properly qualified — or will they just post them on the internet? In any case it’s hard to imagine families getting rich after a bidding war for a recently-deceased artist’s letters and papers, as has happened so often in the past. I also imagine that scholars in the future will spend a lot of time scouring the web for evidence of authors’ online presence. If someone decades from now ends up writing a biography of the wonderful John Crowley, surely he or she will notice that Crowley had his own blog; but will he or she find that Crowley once discomposed John Holbo by commenting on a blog post Holbo wrote about him? And if someone writes a book claiming that James Wood was the great literary critic of his day, will that scholar discover Wood’s response to Daniel Green’s snarky blog post about him? This kind of thing happens all the time. Of course, there are also those authors, like Lee Siegel, who participate in conversations pseudonymously or anonymously. How many of those interventions will be discovered? Many questions to be answered in the coming years. I will just add this, though: in writing my books about W. H. Auden and C. S. Lewis, I spent a lot of time poring over their correspondence in libraries — primarily the New York Public Library for Auden and Wheaton’s own Marion Wade Center for Lewis. Some decades from now it’s unlikely that many scholars will need to travel to particular archives or libraries in order to do their research: they will be able to do a great deal of it from their laptops, wherever they happen to be. But certain experiences will be lost: the quality and feel of the paper the authors wrote on, for sure; in many cases (whenever email dominates) the variations in handwriting and even in typescript. The material conditions of authors’ lives will be less vivid to scholars, with what consequences I do not know. I have a vivid memory of my study of the Auden letters in the NYPL: they were organized by recipient, and every now and then I would come across a letter scrawled — Auden had horrific handwriting — on the curious orange stationery of the In Town Inn of Lubbock, Texas. They all bore the same date — it was the late Fifties or early Sixties, I believe — which suggests that Auden didn’t find a lot to do that night he spent in Lubbock. I enjoy imagining what his room must have looked like, as he sat at the little desk and dashed off letters to friends, pausing from time to time to take what he called “an analeptic swig” from his flask of hooch. And I think of his wonderful comic poem “On the Circuit”. Future scholars are likely to have fewer small pleasures, small moments of imaginative vision, like that one.