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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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.

Anne Applebaum: Yes, I'm sure that's true. But the medium does affect how one writes, or at least that's what I find. Which has always been true: Surely the change from laboriously copied, hand-written, illuminated manuscripts to the printing press changed the kinds of books that people wrote and read too.

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Maryland: I still have "love letters" from high school and college beaus in the pre-Internet days, but the love of my life and I never "mailed" letters. No one prints out an e-mail to treasure forever after.

Anne Applebaum: No. But they're probably all in a Google storage tank somewhere, so be careful...

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Raleigh, N.C.: Anne, I have seen so many wonderful stationery stores pop up—around here and in other cities (there's a great one in Georgetown)—how do these stay afloat? Or maybe they don't? Or maybe people love to buy stationery (and the idea and nostalgia of letter-writing) and then maybe it just sits, never to be used?

Anne Applebaum: I love buying stationery and then it sits, never to be used...

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Washington: This reminds me of a friend who is a sculptor. He used to send postcards that he had made by cutting the text into thin steel with a gas torch, or some other material and method. For him, I think, it was as much about testing the Post Office—but now you could see it as a statement about how easy and impermanent e-mail is.

Anne Applebaum: Yes—though how far away can we be from email art? If it's not already being done, that is.

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Anne Applebaum: Goodbye all—and thanks for taking a few minutes to focus on the ancient, arcane, and definitely not twenty-first century subject of letter-writing. AA

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