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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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