A Case For The Dwindling Art Of Letter Writing In The 21st Century

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In her new book, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing," Nina Sankovitch traces the history of letter writing back to the ancient Egyptians. She also brings us letters from the very famous, like Nelson Mandela's sweet and loving notes to his wife Winnie while he was imprisoned, to a trove of letters from the not-so-well known, who write just as eloquently of their hope, pain, loss and love.

Why write a letter? With email, text messaging and all the other ways to instantly communicate, letter writing is a dwindling art. But Sankovitch makes a passionate case that it's one we should hold on to, and that letters are a bridge across time and space. They are often private, but also unique and singular documents that contain evidence of love, kindness, advice and even immortality.

Nina Sankovitch will appear Thursday night at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge.


Nina Sankovitch, Connecticut-based writer and author of "Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing." She tweets at @readallday.


On the letters Nina discovered in a house she bought:
Nina Sankovitch: "My husband and I had just bought this wreck of an old house — it had half a roof and no plumbing, no heating, and it had this overgrown backyard that the neighbors had basically been using for dumping trash for years. And one of our first projects was to go out and clean out the backyard. We went back there and we discovered a shed, and inside the shed was a trunk — a steamer trunk. The kind that an heiress would take to Europe with all of her belongings for eight months — this huge trunk. And we open it up, and it is full of letters. It was just an amazing treasure to me, to find hundreds of letters written to one person. I knew that I could uncover the story of this woman through her letters, and the letters that really fascinated me were the ones written to her by her son. She had three children, the youngest was a boy and most of the letters in the trunk were written by him, by James."

How digital communication is different from letter writing:
NS: "What is special about a letter is the time that is taken in creating a letter — that someone went to the trouble of finding a piece of paper, sitting down, crafting their thoughts, putting them on paper, and that they created this document really just for me. A letter is a very singular expression, it's a unique document, and for that reason, to get it in the mail feels almost like a gift. It's a gift that I've received in the mail, as well as being a real physical connection to my son. It's a piece of paper that I can feel. I can feel the same paper that he touched, I can see him in his handwriting, which I recognize. Sometimes I can even get a little whiff of him. So there's a physical connection."

Why letter writing is important:
NS: "I looked back through thousands of years of letter writing in trying to figure out the answer to that question — why write letters? What are the qualities of letters that are so important? And I came across so many important qualities. But I think the one, for me, that means so much is how letters create such a connection between the writer of the letter and the person who's reading the letter. And that can happen with people who are still alive — like the letters that I write to my own son who's off at college and the ones I occasionally get from him. But also, the letters that I've read from the past really connect me to the past. And these aren't famous people, only, that I'm talking about. I read so many letters of people that we only know of because of the letters they left behind."

On love letters:
NS: "Love letters demonstrate one of the great qualities of letters, which is that they are very private. We expect them to be private. There's a cultural expectation and also really a legal protection for letters. It's certainly in this age of surveillance pretty valuable to know that our letters are still protected from probing eyes and so I think people feel free in letters to express themselves in ways that they otherwise might not. I talk in my book about the couple from the 1100s and they're both living in religious houses — a woman in a convent and a man in a monastery and yet they're writing to each other about this deep sexual connection they had in the past and the woman still feels it very much. Now, the only way she could feel to say, 'Look, I still lust after you — in the middle of mass I'm still thinking about you.' She could only have done that by really relying on the privacy of letters. If people had known she still felt that way she would've been thrown right out of the convent. And, in fact, her letters were protected for about 100 years and then they were discovered and they became the hit of the renaissance because they were the hottest lovers ever known — Abelard and Heloise."

On the qualities of a good letter:
NS: "It just came to me, that idea, when I was sort of summing up, in my own head, what makes a good letter, and what are the qualities that define a letter and this idea of the privacy of the letter and how it creates a connection between one person and another and that we take time to write a letter and I realized these are all things that are just as important in just a face-to-face relationship — any relationship. When we take the time and when we have a really private and unique communication with one person we're really having a true relationship with them. We're engaging with them in a way that is really special. And another aspect of letters that I think is so important is that there's so much time involved in a letter that so much of our communication today is very compressed and immediate. If we send out a text, we want a response right away. If I put a picture on Instagram I want someone to like it right away. Whereas when I write a letter I put it in the mail and I'm not expecting a response right away, if at all. There are some letters we don't even expect responses to and so there's that wonderful stepping back in allowing time to take part of the communication and that's very important in a relationship as well. When you're in a relationship with someone, you can't always be in their face. You have to give them space and time and that's exactly what letters allow us to do."


This segment aired on June 5, 2014.


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