Monday, June 15, 2009

Life After Email

Back in the mid‘90s, when email was sweeping the land, my friend M. and I made a resolution—a ridiculously solemn and hopeless one, in retrospect—that we would not use it to communicate with each other. We had been carrying on a correspondence by regular mail for more than a decade and we figured that if we let ourselves drop each other emails 20 times a day, the impulse to write long letters would pretty quickly dry up.

Of course, our email abstinence never stood a chance. Before long we were killing entire afternoons emailing back and forth. A rule established itself: The more frivolous the topic, the longer our email exchanges would last.

Thing is, our letters have continued, too. Even though we know we can reach other by email just about whenever we need to, each of us will still sit down every few weeks or months and send a letter off to the other. We’ve learned to make distinctions between email material and letter fodder. The ephemera and one-liners and “did-you-see-this” stuff gets translated into a quick email. The long stories and serious navel-gazing gets saved for letters.

I thought about emailing M. when I read Benjamin Kunkel’s essay in n+1 about coming to terms with life online. What I like about Kunkel’s essay is that, like any really interesting essayist, he’s of two minds about his topic. He recognizes what he calls “the vulgarity of online life.” He writes of “diving helplessly into an all-you-can-eat buffet” of blogs, email, texting, message boards, and the rest. He says a little ruefully that he no longer sends or receives letters.

But he also gives email its due, writing that its brevity “makes a special prize of wit” and favors “repartee as nothing else,” with the potential of turning us all into banterers of the Cary Grant/Rosalind Russell ilk. I think he’s onto something about email and wit, but I’m also glad that M. and I are still writing each other letters. Even if letters are just another entrée on the all-you-can-eat buffet, I see no need to pass them up.


  1. One of my greatest regrets in life is that I didn't continue correspondence by mail with the pen pal I've had since the 4th grade--that and at some point in college I actually threw away all the letters I'd saved from her over the years. We held out a long time before moving to electronic communication, but eventually we caved in to "progress." We're still in touch, but somehow the occasional email, blog comment, or Facebook update just isn't the same.

  2. I miss letter writing. I used to do it often. I like the immediacy of email, which yields writing that is closer to casual chat, to communication you might have if the person were actually nearby on a regular basis. But the more reasoned thoughtfulness of letters is gone. I also miss handwriting, which has always seemed more personal than typing, if sometimes harder to read.