You Won’t Find Emails in a Trunk in the Attic

While digital archives don't clutter up the house, they lack poignancy.
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At the Writing Table, 1790, artist unknown (National Gallery of Art)

Nothing more dramatically underscores the changes in the way we communicate with each other in this era than going through the ritual known as “downsizing.” The Connecticut homestead my wife and I live in has been in her family for five generations, and the time has finally come to plunge into the cabinets, trunks, and closets throughout the rambling old house to decide what letters, diaries, memorabilia and photographs are worth preserving (a good deal) and what can be, there is no polite way to say it, tossed. 

One file drawer in the garage apparently unopened for decades turned up a carefully maintained collection of my late father-in-law’s letters to his parents from his service as a navigator in the 7th Army Air Corps as the war raged in the Pacific; a cache definitely worth keeping. A front-page photograph in the Greenwich Time of April 13, 1944, showed Capt. Albert W. Sherer receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross “for heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight.” That medal (among others) turned up in a dresser and was presented to Captain Sherer’s great-grandsons at Christmas.

Consider the emotional effect and enduring value of spending days with these tangible and largely irreplaceable artifacts of the past⎯compared to the maintenance of today’s digital archives, mainly emails (or, more recently, Facebook entries) that are in computerized folders or, for protection, in the cloud.

In his New York Times column “Disruptions” this week, Nick Bilton wrote with satisfaction of disposing of 46,315 unread emails (more than likely most were business related) to clear his figurative desk at the start of the year. Bilton’s point is that long-distance communications are now so routine and essentially free that we are overwhelmed by them.

Sure, old fashioned letters are nice. But few of us need paper and postage stamps for correspondence. . . . And we certainly don’t have to travelnext door or around the world to communicate with someone. Email, messaging on social networks and even text messages . . . cost nothing more than the devices in our hands. As a result we are deluged by messages. There is no escape: Email is probably the most invasive form of communication yet devised.

Moreover, clear limitations on privacy and the tendency for emails to be written in short bursts diminishes their thoughtfulness. That is what makes them so disposable and why years from now, the pleasures, surprises and poignancy of delving into old correspondence is unlikely to provide the impact of what we found stashed in so many places around our house.

In our house, there are family letters from as from far back as the 1880s that somehow were preserved in good condition in trunks and chests and for each generation of parents, children, relatives, and friends that followed, correspondence in letters accumulated, reporting, often vividly, on activities in every aspect of lifeschools, romances and adventures. Telegrams of congratulations recorded accomplishments or merely whereabouts. Stacks of condolence letters (most recently from my mother-in-law’s death in 2012) can be especially moving, the best of which characterize feelings about the persons now gone with reflections that renew a sense of what made them so distinctive.

My family, escapees from Poland early in World War II, lost most of their papers, but one amazing discovery that I will especially cherish is my mother’s elegant parchment diploma from the University of Warsaw in 1932, recognizing her specialization in science and philosophy. Fleeing the Nazis and making her way with my father and brother from India (where I was born) to New York and a career as a biochemist at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, this document somehowmiraculously, as far as I am concernedremained intact. And I had never seen it before.

In one drawer, my mother’s recollection of the tumultuous family exodus was preserved on a set of cassettes. In a cabinet, we found a leather-bound “baby book” my wife’s grandmother kept for her eldest daughter that was so detailed, including a lock of blonde hair that has been tucked in an appropriate page for more than ninety years. Perhaps because they are so increasingly rare and share intimacies more often than other forms of communication, it is the personal letters that leave the strongest impression. In his column on emails, Bilton quotes Branko Cerny, founder of SquareOne, a company that sorts and highlights important messages as making the essential point that in the past, “people put thought into what they were going to write before they sent it. With digital, Cerny said, it’s send first, think later.”

While the originals of all the letters and the older albums of photographs, in particular, have special value, they are, for the most part, fragile. That is where technology becomes a significant positive feature of our encounter with the family trove. Digital versions of all the best material are well worth creating and will doubtless endure for posterity. All this family history will certainly fit neatly into today’s devices, and then can be shared with the click of a button. What may be missing, however, is the splendid commitment that went into the writing and saving of those communications from times gone by.

 
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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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