For a good part of my life, i had a tin cracker box filled with old letters. Most of these were letters sent to me by old boyfriends, away at college or otherwise separated from me and declaring their affections. There were also some letters from friends off on a big adventure somewhere and I found them so well written, the details of their experiences so juicy that I chose to save them. There were a few letters from one of my parents who acknowledged me for something that I had done or shared their pride and love for me in such a way that I knew I’d want to re-savor them at a later date. The box, and the letters they contained were a comfort to me at times when I was stressed or nostalgic and I loved to pull them out occasionally, sit on my bed, reading and remembering.
Old letters have been the background context for so many personal histories and biographies. A stack of letters found in attic floorboards tell intimate stories of a long lost relative. Archived letters from former presidents, military strategists or explorers provide detailed insights into many historical events that perhaps would have only been dates on a calendar or vague remembrances without these precious details. Penned at a time when the nuance of the written language was everything, old letters convey mood, emotion and relationship in a way that allow us to construct a very well detailed picture of what was going on at the time. Combined with old photos and personal accounts, they form the basis of what we personal historians, oral historians and biographers do when we create a memoir.
But now we’re living in a world of email, text messaging, Twittering and other electronic communications. These are often quickly dashed off, a thought or two or perhaps a request. There are no explanations, no setup of scene, time and place. Just notes such as, “C U @ 7 tonite?”
I get over 400 emails a day. Mind you, most of it’s Spam that I need to sift through and make sure my filters didn’t miss any real emails but even the good stuff probably amounts to around 50 a day. Few of these are detailed communications and should I get something that resembles a letter, I read it and respond and unless I forget about it, it doesn’t stay on my computer longer than a few weeks.
Of course we have the ability to archive emails and I’m sure some people do. There have been several legal cases involving public interest groups and scholars suing branches of the government for access to electronic files. The legal implications of hitting the “empty trash” button are still being sorted out but it does make one wonder about the future of us “plain folk” and how a lot of the history that we passed on to the future in the form of written letters will no longer exist in this digital age.
Unfortunately, in a cleaning frenzy in my mid 30s, I threw out my biscuit tin and the collection of old letters, something I now truly regret. But my parents and in-laws, in their own cleaning frenzies, are returning letters to me that I wrote to them many years ago and I am trying to not look at the “clearing your clutter” books and allow them be found by the next generation.