On Being a Modern Gentleman:
Guideline 12: Write Letters
I maintain various social media accounts, correspond with friends and acquaintances via email, text, or private message, and talk to family using telephone or Skype, but there is something to be said for the power and imbued message in a handwritten letter. Saul Bellow said it best:
I send you a mere booklet, and you answer with a personal letter, a really valuable communication in the old style. I sometimes think I write books in lieu of letters and that real letters have more kindness in them, addressed as they are to one friend.
A handwritten letter is good for the sender and the receiver. As Bellow said, letters have more kindness in them; they are more genuine, more personal. A letter held in one’s hand is much more intimate than the same words received in an email or text message. And, the art of writing a letter is much different than the art of writing a novel or blog or editorial. Twain is believed to have attributed his writing style to a history of letter writing, and (in a letter of course) he wrote:
I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English – it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.
While his skill with plain language may not be born completely from letter writing, it is hard to argue that writing letters might contribute to such a style. Letters exercise different skills than a novel; in fact, letters are most like short stories. There is little room for verbosity when it all must fit in an envelope.
Aside from teaching diction, letters teach penmanship, a skill abandoned in this world of texting and email–I’m appalled at the handwriting of my students and many colleagues. Letters also contribute to values and attitudes previously mentioned in this month’s theme: amiability, chivalry, and empathy.
Lastly, and on more, well, nerdy note. Can you imagine studying an author without poring through his or her collected letters? There would be no way to stumble upon a chest full of letters betwixt your grandparents. I agree with Martin Amis who wrote, “no, we won’t be seeing, and we won’t be wanting to see, the selected faxes and e-mails, the selected texts and tweets of their successors.”