Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Demise of the Letter

In The Celebrated Letters of John B. Keane, Keane opens with a preface on the humble letter, stating that it is “the simplest and most permanent form of communication”.  Furthermore, he sees the epistolary form as a vastly underused resource in the literary world. John B. Keane put together a collection of ‘novelettes’ as he terms them from a series of “stock” Irish characters that includes the farmer, the matchmaker, the parish priest and the T.D. (a government representative in the Irish parliament).  Writers such as Samuel Richardson and Daniel Defoe used the letter as a literary device to give the reader an insight to the character's thoughts but also as a means to further the plot through time and life-like realism.  This resulted in the emergence of the novel as we know it today.  The epistolary was the earliest genre used for the novel.

         With the advent of the internet and e-mail one has to ask who nowadays takes out a sheet of paper and composes a letter? The internet has revoluntinised how we communicate.  Keane states that letter writer can “expand to his heart’s content especially if he was romantically disposed towards the object of his calligraphy,” but no calligraphy is needed with e-mail, just a reliable internet connection, a little technological know how and the ability to locate the buttons on the keyboard.
         The slow death of the letter is indicative of something else; we are experiencing a communication revolution. The letter, telegram and fax are dying breeds and this is good in one context, we are saving paper and trees. We now have a number of ways to keep in touch: text, e-mail, social networking sites such as facebook, twitter, etc and the list keeps on growing. Ironically these new forms of communication were designed to save time, instead they create more work as one has to check them all in order to keep up. It is endless unless you opt out of it and become a recluse.  We can be hooked up to others electronically 24/7 if we so choose.
        Paradoxically, these forms of contact are both impersonal and deeply personal.  We can hire, fire, dump, flirt or stalk through e-communication without ever looking at that person in the eye.  We can tell the entire world our thoughts, what we ate, read, watched, wore or did on any given day. The concept of ‘Dear Reader’ is global rather than a one to one intimacy.
        Therefore one has to ask, how is this new form of communication going to change how we interact with each other? Will we lose our social skills or will they morph into something else? What effect will this have on literature, art and culture? Is it safe to expose our entire selves to the entire world? Is it fair or right to rid ourselves of undesirable relationships, people or jobs at the touch of a button? Will we lose our ability to be intimate in real life through these new forms of communication and what boundaries do we need to develop to protect our personal space?
         In its heyday, the letter was extremely powerful; it gave us an insight to the author’s worldview. It could be used as a legal document and as Keane notes letter writing is “fraught with risks and men have incriminated themselves by committing their views or allegiances” often to their political or social detriment.  There seems to be a false sense of security with the e-mail / social media as it is incorporeal and we are hidden behind our screens so why worry? However, we are moving towards an age whereby those ones and zeros in computer binary code hold a lot more power than we give them credit for at present.

© The Bag Lady  November 2009

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