‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered’: The lost art of letter writing

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signedWe’ve gained so much through the technological advances of recent years, but we’ve lost some wonderful things, too. Near the top of my list of sad losses is the end of letter writing brought about by the rise of emails and texting and the social networks.

A decade ago, when I was packing up my mother’s house, I found a few stacks of letters I had written to her during my first months at college, more than 30 years earlier. I was moved that she chose to save them and then blown away by what my 17-year-old self had written. I remember loving practically every minute of my time in State College, Pa., but the letters told a different story.

I could see the false front I was putting up to hide my early homesickness and she probably did, too, as the months passed and the number of letters finally dwindled. The letters were written in the time when we still had “long distance” phone calls — which cost a small fortune (even within the state of Pennsylvania) — and, believe it or not, there were no phones in the dorm rooms at Penn State in 1968.

Do today’s parents save the texts their kids send them?

signed1Or, print out the e-mails and file them away?

Perhaps the huge upsurge in photography via smart phone is making up for the loss of words on paper. And, freshman year college homesickness might be a thing of the past in an age when you are able to feel connected with everyone everywhere thanks to Facebook and Twitter.

All of this nostalgic pondering — sorry! — came in the wake of reading the wonderful new book by Nina Sankovitch, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” (Simon and Schuster), in which she starts by writing about her own relationship with letters and letter writing, and then takes us on a journey into the way that personal and public history was once preserved in letters.

The book begins with a cache of letters that Sankovitch found in an old New York City house she and husband bought and restored. She found a trunkful of letters to and from various members of the Seligman family, but quickly zeroed in on the letters James Seligman wrote home when he was attending Princeton from 1908 to 1912.

Sankovitch didn’t fall in love with the long dead James — ala Nicholas Sparks — but she did form a tight bond that had her returning to the letters again and again. Years later, when her own son was starting college, she began thinking about the power of letters in the Internet age.

“Signed, Sealed, Delivered” mixes carefully selected moments from the author’s personal history with ruminations on the correspondence of everyone from Edith Wharton to Abraham Lincoln.

Sankovitch is very sharp on the differences between the instant gratification/stalking elements of today’s texting, and the pleasures associated with the independence of writing letters in an earlier time:

“When I write a letter, I send it out and then go back to my day, my work and my children, the cats and Jack, books and food. Yes, I am waiting for an answer to my letter but waiting is not my main activity. To be dependent on e-mail and text is to have access to immediate response — but diminishes the rich opportunities that come from living with delayed gratification. For so much happens in the delay.”

Wise woman, wise book.

Joe Meyers

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