Loss of Letters

Historian David McCullough commented on letters in the “10 Questions” section of the June 20, 2011 Time magazine:

“Q: We don’t write letters on paper anymore.  How will this affect the study of history?

McCullough’s Answer: The loss of people writing — writing a composition, a letter or a report — is not just the loss for the record.  It’s the loss of the process of working your thoughts out on paper, of having an idea that you would never have had if you weren’t [writing].  And that’s a handicap.  People [I research] were writing letters every day.  That was calisthenics for the brain.”

Writing is good for the brain!!  Real writing, not texting….





4 responses to “Loss of Letters

  1. Does McCullough refer to only handwriting or also typewriting, or does he differentiate?

    Does email count? It is much easier to rewrite an email than a text on paper, and much easier to correct than a typo, and it looks much nicer than my handwriting 😉

    • McCullough does not differentiate between handwriting and typewriting. I am thinking that he means either, as long as they are folded up, inserted into an envelope and mailed, sent by courier, or otherwise delivered by human beings and not computers. So email does NOT count!!! The whole point of McCullough’s comments was how much will be lost because of electronic communications that no one keeps, in shoe boxes, files or elsewhere. Email is convenient, true, but your concern about your handwriting could be resolved with typing, whether on a typewriter or in a word processing program and print it out.

      McCullough’s concerns as a historian are also mine as a writer who likes to read other people’s letters and biographies. So much of what we know from the past come from letters…..

  2. I can’t see how the electronic nature really matters. People could write drafts for personal long letters on paper. The writing is the same in either case. Whether it is delivered electronically or not isn’t the issue. It’s the usage of language. I could electronically mail you a letter, have you print the document onto paper and -poof!- a letter according to McCullough. Yet my creation and transmission process is entirely electronic. This, ultimately, is a judgment on the immutability of the archival of the document.

    My writing on my blog represents the same thing as a letter. 200 years ago, I would likely have been writing the exact same things in either a journal or in letters to my dearly beloved spouse who was living on a different continent pursuing a love of natural philosophy.

    This writing is more accessible in one aspect – anyone can read my blog or yours. Yet it is concurrently less accessible, in that someone would not know, 200 years from now, that I had a blog and Blogspot probably won’t exist. My writing is as transitory today as it would have been long ago.

    • The electronic nature does matter because the vast majority of people nowadays do NOT print out their e-mails and save them. E-mails are also not necessarily “letters” to be saved anymore than text messages are, unless they deal with business or are written by someone over about 40 years old. In fact, it’s far less likely that e-mails will be saved than real letters. They are deleted or sit on servers and lost in the “cloud.” I print out e-mails that most resemble real letters and save them, but I also write real letters. I also print out my blog posts with comments and save them. But not every blogger does that either.

      The language usage in electronic communication is another subject that I think I’ve written about (“The Gr8 American Txt Msg Nvl,” 2/28/09, for example). The bottom line for real letters or e-mails — future historians and biographers will have no material to work from if nothing is saved now.

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