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.

Apple Grove, Md.: I'd disagree with you about the death of letters, but only slightly. I, and others I know, will occasionally write what most would consider a "letter," via e-mail. It's usually to someone I haven't seen or spoken to in long time. What other factors have contributed to letter writings demise? Would cheap long-distance rates also play a part?

Anne Applebaum: Good morning all—just managing to log on now. I'm staying with family in Santa Fe, in a house with no internet connection whatsoever, so...hello from Starbucks.

Thanks for the first question—yes, I too sometimes write a long, letter-like email, but I find I'm doing so less and less. I'm just too aware of the fact that my recipents won't be expecting it, might be in a hurry to read other mail, and will feel guilty about not responding immediately in the same vein (I know I do). Email just somehow lends itself to brief answers and brief questions, and maybe short jokes.
But clearly, cheap long-distance rates have a lot to do with it too. Plus the fact that everyone is so busy nowadays—who has time to write?

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Kensington, Md.: See, my college buddies and I did the letter/postcard thing when we were so insanely busy during finals or whatnot that we couldn't spend lots of time together, so we'd write to each other and have something in our campus mailboxes that wasn't a bill but still let us know what was up (this also forced us to take the periodic ten-minute break to write back instead of completely overdoing it).

Since we've graduated (class of '06), a couple of my friends and I still do write letters, though these days with postage it tends to be more postcards than letters (campus mail was free). Part of it is the novelty of having something in the mail that's actual correspondence instead of junk or bills, and some of it is just that we like writing letters and finding neat things to write them on (my last postcard to a friend was someone's leave-behind from an art exhibit I went to; her last letter was written on a placemat from a place she stopped at mid-road trip; and when we couldn't find postcards, we decorated our own 4x6" index cards and wrote on them). If any of us decide to run for office, I dunno what sort of hubbub this might cause, but if we don't they're neat memorobilia (or at least, the ones we save are).

Anne Applebaum: Yes, we used to do that too. Little notes, pictures, postcards. An electronic message just isn't the same, is it.

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Reading, Pa.: Anne: Should one expect to find deeper musings from a potential president? Were you disappointed at the shallow waters?

Anne Applebaum: No, actually I think her letters sounded like those that any college student in the 1960s might have written. I'm sure I'd cringe if anyone discovered mine, written in the 1980s. I wonder what George W.'s were like? Or Bill Clinton's? One shudders to think.

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Freising, Germany: I'm not sure if letter-writing is really going the way of the dodo, but it's certainly much less frequent, much less eloquent and much less thorough. The point-scoring that you talked about certainly makes it less likely to read about trivial, everyday occurrences in personal letters. For your book on the Gulag, did you go through any personal correspondences of the inmates? What did they write about that was passed through by the censors?

Anne Applebaum: Many thanks—although the rules were different at different times, thoughout most of the Stalin period Gulag prisoners weren't allowed to write anything but brief postcards, and usually, for the sake of their families, they just wrote something like "I am fine, all is well"—basically, I'm still alive.
There are one or two very early, pre-Stalin sets of Gulag letters, including one famous set from a famous Orthodox theologian and philosopher to his children, which are amazing. Eloquent, interesting: almost nothing about life in the camps themselves though.

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Indianapolis: I see both the positive and negative of e-mail and cell phones. It's easier to stay in touch with a "hi, thinking of you" message when you're too busy to do a longer more personal message. But I discovered one of the downsides a few days ago when I had to send a handwritten thank you note for a job interview, and my handwriting was appallingly bad. I couldn't seem to make my hand do (legible) cursive any longer.

Anne Applebaum: Yes—handwriting is another thing that's dying, but that's also because it isn't taught well anymore. I discovered this when we recently moved from Washington DC to Warsaw and my children, who had previously been thought to have adequate handwriting, were made to do endless exercise books because their writing was thought to be so dreadful, by Polish standards.

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