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 travel⎯next 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 life⎯schools, 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 somehow⎯miraculously, as far as I am concerned⎯remained 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.”