Unlettered society


in Daily updates, Writing

National Archives of Canada

My ongoing fruitless search for lined correspondence paper has hammered home the degree to which letters have faded from our society. Not even specialized paper stores have ordinary letter paper for sale, it seems. This is no surprise, really, given how much more immediate and immersive other forms of communication are. The societal forces at work lead me to wonder whether we are even capable of writing letters anymore.

There was a long span of time during which letters were the only low-cost means of maintaining personal relationships at a distance. This began in the ancient world (though only because popular with the rise of mass literacy) and persisted until the rise of affordable long-distance telephone calls and the internet. Now, there are a myriad of more rapid and personal ways through which to exchange all manner of personal thoughts and information. Email was the dirt on top of the well-nailed coffin: allowing people the permanence and clarity of written language in a much quicker and more versatile way. Now, every office tower is stuffed with BlackBerried workers.

Yet the letter persists as an aesthetic ideal. People value them because of the time they take to construct and their enduring quality. I still have letters that Kate wrote me a decade ago. Still, I wonder whether people who are utterly acquainted with rapid communication are generally capable of writing things in a style suited to this slow and permanent route. Our communication styles have simply become too dynamic – we expect things to change quickly and for responses to be fluid. At the same time, all but a tiny minority of people have become utterly unpracticed in letter writing. Just as poetry and public speaking are no longer taught as a skill in schools, so too has letter writing been marginalized due to a lack of need and a lack of practice.

Overall, I cannot help but think this is a change for the better. People can remain in contact more vividly and extensively, despite how they tend to have groups of friends who are ever more spread out. Letter writing is destined to become an occasional curiosity – like the ‘paper making’ workshops that sometimes happen in elementary schools or craft stores (usually just re-assembling cut up bits of previously made paper). Hopefully, people who are engaging in the kind of correspondence that will eventually be published in books (if those do not vanish as well) have been keeping accessible and reliable paper copies. Digital media are fickle, and it would be rather tragic to lose such a historical record to failed hard drive bearings and changed file formats.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Anon @ Wadh October 17, 2007 at 8:13 pm

You are hyperactively all over the place, most of the time. You should practice slowing down and focusing. Letter writing might be a good mechanism for that.

Ashley October 18, 2007 at 9:55 am

The Papery in the Glebe will solve all your problems as will Papier in the market. Those of us who tote moleskin notebooks are part of the secret letter writing compact.

Litty October 18, 2007 at 11:31 am

I agree that letters are essentially an anachronism: like horse and buggy rides.

Just like horse and buggy rides, letters can be romantic. This is precisely because they are both rare and quaint.

Alena Prazak October 18, 2007 at 6:01 pm

I have kept in touch with friends around the world for more than 30 years and it certainly does not seem like an anachronism. A few letters a year and a photo at Christmas or on a birthday bring back wonderful memories, add to my collection of stamps and serve as therapy for me as well. A beautiful card to hold and a photo to put on the fridge make my day. I find it amazing that my little insignificant letter can make it to a small village in Tanzania for about two dollars.

Anon @ Wadh October 18, 2007 at 9:08 pm

People really appreciate letters precisely for the reasons you say – they take effort and are unusual.

If you find that you can’t easily adapt your brain to writing in that medium… practice!

sasha October 19, 2007 at 12:22 pm

“Just as poetry and public speaking are no longer taught as a skill in schools”

Okay, I have to object here. I personally teach both, as do a great proportion of my colleagues. Public speaking is a major emphasis in the new ministry curriculum guides, and no student can make it through the entire English curriculum without reading at least some poetry. We might not be able to give them the attention they deserve, but we certainly do teach them.

Milan October 19, 2007 at 1:21 pm


I meant writing poetry, not reading it. Being able to write verse used to be part of a comprehensive education.

Alena Prazak October 20, 2007 at 1:20 pm

Oleh using Alena’s computer

Talking about how times and costs have changed. I remember reading a story set in the 19th century America. It was at a time when either the sender or the recepient would pay for the postage. If the sender did not pay and the recepient did not pay, then the postman would not hand over the letter. The story relates to a poor immigrant woman, perhaps from Ireland, who communictaed with her family in her country of origin by mail. However, for each of them postage was expensive. Therefore they would send envelopes with no content and no postage to pass the message that “All is well”. The recepient would then get the message in that form that all was well and not pay the postage. Only when the sender wanted the recepient to actually get more infomation , I expect usually bad news, would the sender pay the postage. I expect this is consistent with the proverb, “No news is good news”. I also am guilty of sending few personal letters out. However, I keep a stack of cards at my desk and about 20 or so times a year I will quickly simply send a card to someone on the spur of the moment.

Lindi October 21, 2007 at 12:05 am

I am a big fan of written correspondance. I have a giant collection of post-cards hanging on my wall from around the world, including a few from you I believe. Although these are short and relatively uninformative, I do appreciate them infinitely more than emails…

. November 22, 2007 at 10:49 am

‘lined correspondence paper’ is such a rare request that this page of yours is the #3 Google hit for the phrase.

Oleh February 11, 2017 at 2:53 am

Almost ten years after your 2017 post, I wonder now what is the experience of others with letter writing. I continue to receive and send cards. However personal letters sent or received are very few. What has been the experience of others?

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