Anne Applebaum discusses the lost art of letter writing in the digital age.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Aug. 3 2007 1:16 PM

Love Letters?

Anne Applebaum takes readers' questions about written correspondence in the digital age.

Slate columnist Anne Applebuam was online at Washingtonpost.com on Friday, Aug. 3, to discuss Hillary Clinton's college correspondence and the lost art of letter writing. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

(Continued from Page 1)

Anonymous: How embarrassing to have what is essentially your personal diary (meant for one other person's eyes alone) sold to the highest bidder for all to see. What a violation of a friendship and lack of respect for privacy.

Anne Applebaum: Indeed—although I think there are many worse possible violations of privacy than having your college letters discovered, particularly if you are married to Bill Clinton.

Advertisement

_______________________

Charlottesville, Va.: How has the advent of e-mail and texting affected the traditional letter?

Anne Applebaum: I think the affect has been profound, not just on letter-writing but on writing in general. I know myself that when I write emails I drop puncutation and capitalization, don't bother with full sentences, use lots of ellipses....and it infects my real writing too. But the worst isn't the grammar, it's the fact that whole writing styles become impossible online: the paragraph-length joke, the meandering description, the tongue-in-cheek sentence, these somehow don't make sense in online communication, where the point is to answer quickly. If you tell a joke, it has to be a one-liner.

_______________________

Fairfax County, Va.: The reason why e-mail doesn't constitute a "real" letter is that there's no tangible, physical presence of the other person that having a real paper letter with your friend's or loved one's handwriting on it conveys. You can't glean non-literal cues from their handwriting, the pressure they put on the stationery, or other sensual aspects (to include the perfume they might have been using at the time!) that are in the real letter. It's otherwise all electrons, ready to be discarded at the next computer or operating system upgrade, or lost when the next virus attacks.

Plus, there really is a community of folks who love to use a good fountain pen, some silky stationery and some distinctive colors of inks to add real flair to our letters. For those of us, it's as much of a sensual thing in the process of writing, much more than the scribbles from a disposable ballpoint (stolen from a hotel room) on a legal pad—though even that would be preferable to an e-mail.

Anne Applebaum: Yes, and no way to stain the ink with teardrops either, a gesture which features in many epistolary novels.

_______________________

The 'Net: OMG, ltr-writing is dying? LOL. Y U think that is?

Anne Applebaum: I've never learned to be eloquent in IM-speak. But I gather it is now reaching new levels of sophistication. Danielle Crittenden has just written an entire book in IM-speak—"The President's IMs" imagining how Bush/Condi/Dick etc would communicate with one another if they used it.

_______________________

Washington: In addition to corporate restaurants and shopping areas overtaking and transforming the atmosphere of unique American towns and cities, is this lack of letter-writing yet another indication of our disappearing culture? Or was there ever an "American culture" in the traditional sense of the word?

Anne Applebaum: Of course there's an American culture, it just changes with amazing speed—that's part of its nature. And a few years later, the changes are adopted everywhere else. That's what makes American culture so uncomfortable and unsettling for much of the rest of the world.

As I said in the original column, I don't think there's much point in mourning the passing of letter-writing, it's an inevitability. I just wanted to express the sudden wave of nostalgia I felt when I thought about it.

_______________________

Phoenix: I often am frustrated by the implication that electronic communication must be, by nature of the medium, terse and devoid of emotion. The medium is just that—a medium—and doesn't have to dictate content. For example, a good friend (who lives several states away) and I have taken up an intense letter-writing campaign—on Facebook. Since May, we've exchanged more than 80,000 words, and these "letters" are the very foundation of our very close friendship. We discuss music and politics and teen angst and mixtapes—and the fact that the format is electronic does not take away from the importance of the words that we share. I just wanted to let you know that it's possible. Thanks.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

iOS 8 Comes Out Today. Do Not Put It on Your iPhone 4S.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

The Ungodly Horror of Having a Bug Crawl Into Your Ear and Scratch Away at Your Eardrum

My Father Was James Brown. I Watched Him Beat My Mother. Then I Married Someone Like Him.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 17 2014 12:02 PM Here It Is: The Flimsiest Campaign Attack Ad of 2014, Which Won’t Stop Running
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
  Life
Outward
Sept. 17 2014 1:59 PM Ask a Homo: Secret Ally Codes 
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 1:26 PM Hey CBS, Rihanna Is Exactly Who I Want to See on My TV Before NFL Games
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 1:01 PM A Rare, Very Unusual Interview With Michael Jackson, Animated
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 12:35 PM IOS 8 Comes Out Today. Do Not Put It on Your iPhone 4S.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 11:18 AM A Bridge Across the Sky
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.