The Friday Morning Listen: R.E.M. – Dead Letter Office (1987)

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When’s the last time you sat down and wrote somebody a letter? Have you ever done it? I used to do it all the time, at least up through my late 20s. But then the Internet happened and that was that. Oh well, so long old technology.

This really isn’t another nostalgic lament for days gone by (OK, maybe a part of it is). It’s just that I read this blog post about how the habit of letter writing — in particular, letter writing done by literary figures (examples: Bellow, Updike, etc.) — has gone out of fashion with today’s crowd. Even with our ability to retrieve stuff from digital archives, it would appear that “The Collected Letters of…” is a thing of the past. I’m not so sure about that, but only time will show us that conclusion.

But let me get my nostalgia out of the way. Not more than an hour after reading that article, I looked up on a shelf and saw a coffee mug that reminded me of one of my old letter writing habits. The mug had a hand-drawn scene of the sea shore, with the drawing framed with a hand-drawn rectangle, the last segment of which extended past the last corner and into the first letter of the artist’s name. The artwork is decades old and was actually done by my cousin, who used it in nearly every piece of his art. For some reason, that framing style always resonated with me, so much so that when I wrote letters, I used blank stationery so that I could draw my own frame on each page.

Stylistic fetishes aside, it’s not just the physical act of letter writing that I have nostalgia for…it’s the intimacy of maintaining a conversation in that format. It felt quiet and focused. I’ve occasionally felt that way with email, but that’s a rarity. Texting? Forget it.

So now that we almost never communicate in this physical way, are things like collections of correspondence a thing of the past? That would be a shame. About a week or so before finding this letter writing blog post, I’d been working my way though “The Letters of E.B. White.” That man could make an afternoon scraping barnacles off a hull read like the most interesting thing you’d ever want to do. That fact that he accomplishes this with such plain language? Really incredible stuff.

This is all a lot trickier with digital artifacts. We have email, text messages, tweets, and comments on websites. Over the years, a person can change their email address several times, get new phone numbers, and assume different identities on social media. I’m sure there’s an algorithmic solution that would allow and archivist to comb through and then sort this information (if it can be found), though it’s just a bit more difficult that looking through a stack of letters that have been stored away in a shoe box.

The blog post author mentions that many people are worried that “The Collected Emails of Dave Eggars” (or whomever) won’t carry the same literary weight as say, a collection of letters from William Styron. Maybe. But is that the format or a William Styron/Dave Eggars problem?

In writing these few paragraphs, I came to realize that I really do have more than a little bit of nostalgia about my letter writing. Every so often, I indulge this feeling by pulling out the stacks of old letters that I still keep in a box in my closet. It’s fun to go back and see what the young me was saying to the young me’s friends. I still talk to most of those friends occasionally…through email.

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Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mark Saleski
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