My Book World
I began thinking of our writers and artists who started, like most of us, exchanging e-mails in the 1990s. Have they stored copies of their letters in folders? If we are fortunate enough to have the collected letters of Richard Ford or John Irving or Jane Smiley or Alice Munro or any writer with a career established prior to 1995, will the collections suddenly end with that year?
For a long while, I thought e-mails were worth saving. I from time to time printed out copies of e-mails exchanged with my aunt, my mother’s sister, who is now eighty-two. She often includes important narratives about her childhood or about her adult children and grandchildren—information I might like to use in future writing. I’m glad I did record them because when I changed internet providers at one point, I lost all my electronic files. But I have to admit that I’ve failed to keep up with the practice. I just assume her letters will be in their little cyber folders forever.
When as a culture we used to exchange letters via standard mail, we were careful to some extent. One might store them in boxes and tie them up with string. We’ve all seen that scene in some movie. My mother used to keep a rough draft before sending a letter out. Smart. She had a record of what she’d said, plus she could produce a final copy that was clean. Moreover, if she’d been attempting to keep track of a narrative thread, she would have been able to do so.
Receiving a two to six page letter from someone was quite an event, especially if it was from a love interest. And when an epistle from a relative such as a cousin could keep you riveted to your seat (or not) for five to ten minutes while you read and re-read it, you absorbed it, began thinking of how you would answer. The heft of it, an ounce or more, felt sensuous as you held the sheaves in your hand, looked inviting as you lay them aside, still creased from their folded journey to your front porch. Even after all these years, I still open my mailbox each day with a miniscule hope that I’ll receive a nice plump letter from someone.
Now . . . we as a culture communicate by way of a number of faster and more efficient methods: IMs or texts for example. Among the young, e-mails are quaint, laughable, even a nuisance. To me, texting seems more like passing notes back and forth under your desk at school, but quickly and without much regard for language; you can even include a very cheap-to-produce photo. In fact, I believe the phone companies, when they saw how the young so easily took to the practice, made IMs the most expensive item on one’s phone bill. How can it be? Writing with our thumbs as if we were little monkeys. Yikes.
With regard to the future, will we have instead the collected twits . . . tweets . . . of, say, today’s most beloved of writers? Yes, the Collected Tweets of E. L. James? Or better known as Fifty Shades of Fey? Chelsea Handler’s Fifteen Hundred Greatest Tweets? Or will it be Chelsea’s Collected E-mails in the form of an e-book (a separate volume for those e-mails she sent from her employees’ computers, a fine practical joke)?
Whatever happens, the question is still an interesting one. Will our communiqués become lost to the ages, so much nonsense gobbled up by the ether of cyberspace? Only time will tell. I urge you. If you think you have some vital e-mails, tuck them away now. If you’re going to change providers, somehow make copies, electronic or hard. Otherwise, we may forget what it was like to live in these times. And we must remember. We simply must.