Friday, March 14, 2008

The Fading Snail Mail Trail

I love unexpected e-mail messages from old friends. I love random G-Chats when I have nothing to do. I love out-of-the-blue Facebook messages. But of all the newfangled ways to communicate, you still can't beat a good old-fashioned, handwritten snail mail letter. Unfortunately, the ease of e-mail has made the idea of putting pen to paper and stamp to envelope a bit untenable for most people.

That's why the United States Postal Service and HBO (huh?!) are teaming up to give everyone the chance to send a free, postage-paid card to anyone in the U.S. via snail mail. The initiative serves the dual function of honoring prolific letter-writer John Adams and promoting HBO's upcoming John Adams miniseries.

When I heard this news, I really started thinking about the international preference for electronic communication. What effect might this have on historical record-keeping and biographical investigation? The snail mail trail is such a magnificent resource for discerning the personalities, relationships and wisdom of historical figures from the pre-Gmail days. On a smaller scale, personal letters can reveal family histories and significant events.

I have a box full of all the letters, cards and notes I received during college, as well as an electronic Eudora mailbox full of e-mails I received over the same time period. The hard copy stuff has so much more meaning, even if I can't always read the handwriting.

There's something significant about the tactile sensation of receiving a written letter in the mail. Firing off an e-mail is easy; writing a letter involves lots of heavy lifting. You have to find paper or buy a card, find an envelope, find a stamp (how much is postage these days?) and put it in the mail. Not to mention having to focus your thoughts and write them legibly.

But I believe it's worth the effort. How much correspondence has already been lost through hard drive crashes and other technological derailments? Will there be a volume collecting the e-mail activities of significant historical figures?

I doubt that reading The Complete E-mails, Links and Attachments of Barack Obama 2008-2015? will be nearly as compelling as The Complete Letters of Mark Twain. Think I'm wrong? Mail me a letter and let me know! (OK, fine, you can just leave a comment below.)

P.S. Happy Pi Day!

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