One of the great pities of the electronic age is that it has quietly marginalised, if not completely obviated, one of life’s greatest pleasures: Revisiting old letters. I’ve always been pathologically attached to every scrap of friendly writing that ever came my way. Among my most prized possessions are cartons and cartons of snail mail from the pre-internet age, as well as thousands of stored emails dating right from the early 1990s. I’m here to tell you that re-reading email, while it can jog your memory and even make you smile, is just not the same thing.
There’s something about a physical letter that is so much more than the sum of its parts. It triggers a kind of animistic awe—the notion that this paper, marked in a particular handwriting and bearing the indentations of the pressure applied on the pen, this paper that has physically made its way across the earth to reach my hands, is alive with the spirit of the writer. It’s not just an object bearing a communication but also a spiritual manifestation, a piece of that person’s soul, to be treasured and nurtured.
The result is that I have preserved, in the face of serious dust bunnies, silverfish and space constraints, every birthday card, postcard, aerogramme, post-it, fax, handwritten and even typed letter ever addressed to me. (If you think that’s weird, I should probably not mention the plastic teaspoon I keep as the memorial to a particularly fun day in 1987.)
From the vantage point of 2009 it’s amazing to see how many letters my friends and family and I exchanged before the Internet revolution hit. We wrote long letters, covering both sides of the page in a tiny hand. We put them in lovely crisp envelopes, and licked stamps, and went off to letterboxes and posted them. We waited for a reply, and when the postman handed one over, it was a shining little gift, wrapped in excitement, that you had to slope off into a corner to read and reread. Anyway: I keep them, and periodically re-read them, and this experience is a joy everyone should have.
I must get the packrat streak from my mother, whose similar but much fiercer commitment to history has packed her storeroom to the rafters with the most egregious nonsense. Over the last many days, overcome by a fit of spring-cleaning, she’s been rifling through those stored boxes with the mandate of clearing non-essential clutter.
I came upon her sitting at the dining table surrounded by a sea of paper: My math homework from the eighth grade; my brother’s baby scrawl; my sister’s school reports. I made the mistake of snorting over the math homework (on which, out of a score of 10 out of 14, an extra point had been deducted for late submission) and suggesting she toss it. “You don’t tell me what to toss, okay?” she barked in her fondest bark. Back it went into the box—and there it will no doubt stay. I completely understand; I still have my math homework from the first grade.
The downside of keeping everything, of course, is that you have to put it someplace, and since family members tend to be the most unethical members of your social circle, if they find your stuff they are unlikely to be able to keep from reading it. My sister still hasn’t forgiven my brother and me for reading—and quoting—her teenage diaries when we were kids. Yes indeed, reading other people’s old letters is a joy of its own—but that’s a different story.