I wrote a letter a week over a 15 year period starting from age ten. Over the years, what started as a chore became a pleasurable activity. Curiously, the discipline of filling two sides of a sheet of A4 every Sunday morning, whether I wanted to or not, became a welcome challenge: How can I make the recitation of a week’s mundane events interesting?
Part of the joy of letter writing involves the choice of materials, such as the writing paper and writing implement. Of course no one cares about such things these days, since the advent of the word processor. In fact, with the exception of Christmas cards, no one relies on “snail mail” for personal correspondence any more. After all email is so much quicker. Besides, with one’s entire life posted on Facebook and Twitter for the world to see, what is there to write about?
I think we have all lost something through this transition to electronic correspondence. Firstly, the ability to quickly draft and immediately re-draft everything we write creates a much more edited result. I think it makes us less transparent, or at least it allows us to present a sanitized version of ourselves which would have been much harder to accomplish with pen and paper. Secondly, and I realize that this contradicts my first assertion, dashing off a quick email or Facebook post entices some of us to be much more superficial and even flippant in what we say.
Third and most importantly, we deny each other the tactile pleasure of receiving a letter in the mail that has required thought and effort on our part. The physical labour of writing, the choice of paper and pen, and even which stamp to use. No one else will get a letter like that – it’s tailored for the recipient. Even the time taken for delivery allows the delightful possibility that our news is no longer news. And of course we miss out on the best part of letter writing: receiving a reply.
I recently read about Alice Stewart, a pioneering industrial epidemiologist whose work on the dangers of low level radiation was aggressively opposed by the establishment. Because she was pitted against a powerful lobby group, her work was starved of funding in Britain, and she was frequently shunned by her peers. Nevertheless she persevered and was finally vindicated when the permitted levels of radiation for the public was reduced by two thirds.
What I found particularly interesting about Alice Stewart’s approach was her partnership with a statistician by the name of George Kneale, whose job it was to prove her wrong. As the evidence mounted, he became less and less able to disprove her findings, thereby lending more and more weight to her claims.
In our anxiety not to be proven wrong we are tempted to surround ourselves with people who agree with us. We seek out those who will “like” our Facebook posts, leave supportive comments on our blog, and re-tweet our 140 character views of the world. Isn’t it more important to find people to critique our work so as to help us find our errors, and in so doing quickly put us back on the right track?