I’ve just finished Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. It’s a trilogy set in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, and one of the primary ways in which Stephenson’s web of intriguing characters communicate is via letters. If one character is situated in Versailles and another is causing trouble somewhere abroad, they keep each other abreast of events via the humble letter.
The large part that letters play in Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle is not just a convenient way to move the story forward. It’s also historically accurate. For as long as ink and paper has been readily available, letters have been written and responded to. One of Stoicism’s best-known figures is Seneca the Younger, and his most famous work is his Letters. In fact, throughout distant and recent history the letter has been the tool of long distance communication. Soldiers would write to their wives. Mothers would write to their children. Scientists would write to philosophers. Philosophers would write to artists. Artists would write to fellow creatives. And children would write to anyone they found interesting, inspiring or annoying.
Of course, the precedence of letters declined with the increasing pace of technological innovation. The telephone arrived and people began to call instead of write. Then the internet arrived and we began to favour email and social media. Now, the hierarchy of communication has instant messaging and social media tools at the top and email and telephone calls below. What about letter writing? Not many people deign to pull out a piece of paper and write someone. Sure, we write cards on certain occasions, and sometimes those cards contain thoughtful, detailed messages. But it’s not the same. Letter writing is an art that is tottering on the edge of mortality.
But it could be making a comeback. See, the essence of a letter is not so much the pen and the ink, but rather the long, deliberate effort required to write it. Which means it’s possible to retain the essence but change the form in which it’s sent and delivered. Which is precisely what’s happening with letters-via-email.
Nowadays, email is seen mostly as a capture mechanism. The inbox is like a stream whose flow brings forth required actions, obligations, problems, appointments, entertainment and information. For example, Tiago Forte considers the email account as a central aspect in his information-sorting processes. It is the thing which unites the incoming from various accounts, tools, and activities. Now, I like Tiago’s work. It’s interesting and valuable. But I prefer to think of email less as a capture mechanism and more as a correspondence tool.
One of the benefits of writing is that, sometimes, people send you emails telling you what they think about what you wrote. It could be a few words, it could be an elaborate, detailed criticism or refutation, or it could be a collection of questions. If you take the time to write longer, considered, detailed responses to these emails, the chances are you’ll create a fertile ground for the development of ideas and relationships. This happened to me multiple times. I’ve struck up conversations with people I never would’ve met and talked with them about the most unexpected things. That’s what I’m trying to say. If you’re willing to reserve your email account for longform communication alone, you might just discover the joy of the twenty-first century’s version of letter writing.
And let’s not forget all that we can do now. It used to be that a letter was composed of two things: paper, and ink in the shape of words. But if we write letters-via-email we can use, as well as words, things like hyperlinks, pictures and GIFs. We can quote at length. We can include videos. We can recruit an emoji army to help our cause.
The essence of the letter is the same, but its form has evolved. We can do so much more with simple correspondence. So consider an alternative use for your email account. Forget about capturing and focus on corresponding. Tweeting, messaging, all this is good. But better and more rewarding is taking the time and effort to write a thoughtful, sincere letter.