If you were born before 1980, it’s likely you are writing in code.
That’s right. Cryptic code.
We have a young houseguest staying with us. She’s nineteen. I literally have t-shirts older than she. Needless to say, having her with us has been an education, on both sides.
The other day, she watched with fascination as I sat down with pen and paper and slowly, over the course of the day, wrote a letter, by hand.
The fact that my correspondent and I had never met didn’t seem to faze her–in this day of social media, it’s commonplace. Nor was the idea of sending a letter by snail mail particularly foreign; presumably she’s sent a bill payment or a birthday card in her lifetime. She was curious about the slowness of the process, that it took several sessions at the desk to complete a single letter, but that wasn’t the big issue.
No, what really puzzled her was something much more basic.
I’ve seen this young woman write. She’s penned lists, written down addresses, and jotted the odd note. But when she looked at the four pages of my letter, each covered with the even, regular lines of my handwriting, she was baffled. She stared at the words, was able to pick out one or two, then shook her head and gave up. My letter, perfectly legible to me (and also, I presume, to my pen pal–no complaints from that quarter) was simply incomprehensible to our young friend.
Now, to be fair, my handwriting isn’t the best. It’s a loopy hybrid that stands upright like printing but is connected at several points like cursive. I never mastered true cursive handwriting; the only ‘D’ grade I ever received was in Penmanship, back in the days when that was still a category on report cards. As a result, my cursive is a laborious, uneven, misshapen series of flattened loops and struck-out errors, and I hated it. Thus, whenever it was allowed, I printed the words in my reports and school papers.
And in my letters.
I’ve written letters for nearly a half-century. Most of them were written in pursuit of love, but I also wrote to pen pals and distant relatives. I enjoy the act of writing, and with time and practice, my childish printing became more distinctive, more fluid. Block letters relaxed and blended together. Ascenders and descenders acquired a subtle flair.
I like my handwriting, and have never had complaints about its illegibility.
Our young friend writes almost nothing by hand. She types lighting fast, even when using only her thumbs. She taps at a keyboard like a pro and can cut-and-paste URLs from Reddit to Facebook in a flash. She never uses text-speak like “ur” for “you are,” choosing instead to type out the entire words, often with full punctuation. She’s not lazy.
She just doesn’t write a lot, or read a lot of handwriting.
Her generation was raised with a mouse and a keyboard instead of a pen and paper. They will thumb-type an email and hit send in the time it takes me to collect my thoughts about what I want to say. They may never write a letter, may never even write a grocery list (there’s an app for that).
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it will change who they are, and how they see the world. To them, the world is ephemeral, here and gone in a flash. Their youthful writings will be saved on storage media, if saved at all. Their selfies will be stored in the cloud. Exes will dump their emails by the thousands, destroying them with as much thought as went into their making. Their journals, if they have any, will be part of the blogosphere, not wrapped in satin or leather and stored on a shelf.
I have letters that are eighty years old, collected from relatives. I have letters of my own by the boxload, from old lovers and good friends both living and dead. They are a tangible and permanent record of my history. They are a thing that will remain when I pass away.
My fear, though, is that we–you and I who are now of a “certain” age–that we are the last generation, the last humans who will know the thrill of receiving an envelope in the mailbox, who will think before we write, who will appreciate the poignancy of a dusty, ribbon-bound stack of perfumed letters. I fear that our “disposable” mentality, where every appliance and every gadget that fails is discarded and replaced instead of being repaired, will extend to our interpersonal relationships. Our interactions will be only “of the moment,” and will never achieve even the limited permanence that paper provides. We will tweet, we will hook up, we will hang out, but a year after, a decade after, will we remember? And if so, what will we remember?
I know that the words I write are not important to anyone else, but they are important to me. I know that the love letters I have saved will not touch the heart of others, but they touch mine. I like being able to hold them, to see the sketches in the margins, to read the words of my beloved, to hear them speak to me with the voice of youth. Holding a tablet with a bunch of old emails…it’s just not the same.
And sadly, it seems that not only will these mementos of my life not be appreciated, they may not even be readable to those who come after.