October 7, 2015

LEUNG | The Lost Art

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I’ve always been a person who would gladly choose a physical copy of a book over any other online source. The smell of the book, the tangible feel of flipping the pages and the act of dog-earing corners is lost when it comes to an ebook. My stand for “real books” over ebooks extends to my love for hand-written letters. Even though text messaging, Facebook Messenger and Facetime has made it easier to converse with others electronically, I think it’s important to bring back the art of handwritten letters. There is something immensely intimate about writing — and receiving — a handwritten letter. Whether it’s to a friend, family member or loved one, the feelings associated with letters are far more important and long-lasting than an online exchange.

Letters make every word count. Unlike a text or Facebook message, it isn’t as easy to write rambling sentences or half-formed thoughts. You can’t use an emoji to substitute how you’re feeling. Letters require thought and energy, making every sentence more meaningful. Letters are therefore an outlet of expression — a way to reveal what is truly going on in your mind. The act of physically writing out every word helps ideas form and genuine feelings to arise. Whereas texts and messages can be sent in a matter of seconds, letters take time to write. The fact that a letter cannot be sent so often means there is a higher chance the letter includes actually important and relevant information. Text messages, as useful as they can be, have the chance to be empty, frivolous and nonsensical. Letters include things that matter.

They also require off-screen time. In an age when we spend obscene amounts of time on laptops and smartphones, it’s important to take some time to appreciate using just pen and paper. Away from the distractions of an iPhone or computer, we are able to take a break from the outside world and have time to focus on ourselves and our thoughts. Instead of partaking in the usual feat of multitasking (for example, responding to a friend over iMessage, watching a YouTube video and texting another family member all while scrolling through Facebook photos), letter writing requires concentration and attention.

Handwritten letters are timeless. They have been around for centuries, as they were once used as a crucial means of communication. It evokes a wistful, nostalgic feeling to know that our grandmas and grandpas, and their mothers and fathers before them, wrote handwritten letters during wartime to keep in contact with each other or keep their love alive. Immigrants used letters to communicate back home to their families and friends. Some intriguing letters from the past include King Henry VIII’s love letter to Anne Boleyn in 1527 (while he was still married to Catherine of Aragon), Ludwig Van Beethoven’s letter to his “immortal beloved” in 1812 and 14-year-old Fidel Castro’s letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940 approving of his presidency. Writing letters today continues a tradition that has been alive for as long as we can remember.

Although people wrote letters in earlier ages because there was no other alternatives and the need for communication was necessary, in this day and age, I am a proponent for handwritten letters for the sake of writing them. Receiving a letter means that someone genuinely acknowledged and thought of you. There is time and effort that goes into every letter, making it easy to understand why people today choose the efficiency of texting over writing letters. But letters become keepsakes. Because they are palpable and concrete, even the most light-hearted, casual letter can be viewed more importantly. Letters can be read over and over, creased and folded, kept in safe places. The smudge of written words and the feel of worn paper makes letters undeniably real.

There is a lot more you can say when writing a letter. You learn to articulate your words, express what is on your mind and develop your writing skills. Sadly, the digital age has reduced the impact of words. The text response, “I’m okay,” can bring up a variety of questions: Is the person really okay? Are they just being short? Do they need space now? Is a follow-up response necessary? In a letter, there are less ambiguities. How a person is feeling, or what they are trying to get across, becomes more clear. They have had time to develop what they want to say and how they want to say it.

While computers and smartphones are undoubtedly more efficient, they cannot replace the beauty of the handwritten letter. Texts are extremely useful and I by no means am lessening the importance of them, but it is time for handwritten letters to make a comeback. Let’s not allow the art of writing letters to become a thing of the past.

Gaby Leung is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached atgl376@cornell.edu. Serendipitous Musings appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

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