Thanks to the Internet, I have over the years managed to get back in touch with many long-lost friends. But one of them recently sent me an e-mail complaining that, now that we are communicating on a regular basis, she actually misses me more, not less.
Astounded by the seemingly paradoxical statement, I immediately hit reply: “L. what on earth do you mean?”
Within half-an-hour or so, her e-mail came back with a strangely familiar passage in quotation marks. “Late last night the rain fell. It dripped and dropped against my windowsills announcing the departure of a lethargic winter. Yet I didn’t mind the winter nights. What I fear is the warmth of summer. When my skin turns bronze and when that afternoon sun lingers a bit too long on my shoulders, oh L. I get in trouble.”
Only when I got to the end did it dawn on me that it was my own writing. I wrote this passage to L. more than a decade ago in a handwritten letter, something I regret to report that I rarely do these days. L. concluded: “See what I mean? Where is the writer of this letter now? We e-mail, but are we really in touch?”
Hers is a fair accusation, though she, too, has stopped writing such expressive letters. Since we communicate by e-mail, we say things that are neither deep nor profound.
We are communicating again after some silent years, but L. and I communicate badly. Our electronic correspondence stays on this shallower side of the lake, and our prose, if such it can be called, is only a bit wittier than the yellow pages of the phone book.
“How’s it going?” I would ask in a text. “Bye.”
“Went to see Stomp last night,” L would text back.
“Fantastic. But my kid’s crying, though. Got to go. Love.”
My suspicion is that in a world where we are constantly chatting and twitting, very little is actually being said. We substitute human emotions with those strange symbols 🙂 and :-(, hoping somehow these colons and exclamation points could substitute our sensibility and taste and convey the nuances of our lives.
Social chit chat
The US Department of Education supported my suspicion. It found that only one in four students in high school, both public and private, could write “at a level of proficiency necessary for future job success.” The survey also found that while students are often capable of “social chit chat,” language for the purpose of narration or argument is beyond them. Nine out of 10 of these students are native-born speakers of English.
It is worse, actually, with people who speak English as a second language. Robert Woo, who hails from Hong Kong, says that he can’t write in Chinese anymore.
“I e-mail all my family and friends in Hong Kong in English but I haven’t written anything in Chinese in almost a decade. My parents used to get these expressive letters from me when I was in college, but they can read in English, via the Internet.” He doubts that he can write in Chinese anymore. “Not enough time,” he said, shrugging, “not enough incentive. Besides, there’s always the phone.” And Skype.
So with speed and easy access, the first few casualties may be depth and style. But I fear the last might be literacy itself.
Lost age of literacy
Marshall McLuhan, Canadian professor of Renaissance literature, foresaw the decline of all that he loved and knew — the age of literacy. He predicted, instead, the rise of new oral/aural technologies. People chatting while driving, reading their e-mails at the coffee shop, but don’t pause long enough to reflect.
Indeed, these days I find the only people who write good letters are the old or those living in refugee camps or in prison. A refugee picks up his pen and begins to bleed himself into words. And the prisoner, too, who lives intimately with the knowledge of his own solitude, and who longs for the insularities of the world he left behind, finds his voice true and clear.
For the rest of us in this age of mobility and information, there simply isn’t any time for such a thing as a long, flowing, hand-written letter. I am no exception. Reading the passage L. sent me, I was overwhelmed by the desire to possess those letters I had sent away so freely so long ago.
Or rather, I longed to know him again, the lonely writer of those letters who never heard of such things as e-mails or the Internet and who lived in an age not so long ago, but that might as well belong to another era. It is one where the mailman still played the troubadour of sorts for star-crossed lovers, and not what he is now: The carrier of bills and junk mail.