Nearsighted as we may be, the far-reaching implications of COVID-19 sit ominously, imminently, and unknowably on the horizon. Technological aids like Zoom and Netflix Party are crutches that have made the working and social world as we know it survive a modern-day pandemic. We are grateful for them as temporary solutions, believing we will all be back in the office soon enough.
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However, these tech assistants are doing more to show workplaces, universities, and entire cities that human interaction isn’t really necessary for collaboration and economic success. Private universities will make more money if their institution is easily engaged with online, and companies could afford to stop paying for office space.
It is a grim notion, one which has made New York Times critic Dwight Garner reminisce on the beauty, ‘trueness,’ and importance of letter-writing. In “mourning,” Garner lampoons the telephone for wounding hand-written collaboration; emails, he says, rung the death knell. You could tell an enemy from a friend, a lunatic from an academic, a trustworthy business partner from one who intends you harm. Handwriting is personal, informing its recipient of the author’s character and design. Emails are void of the same personality and disclosure, and with them, we keep our peer at arm’s length.
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“The age of proper correspondence has ended, and there’s been no pan-ecumenical service to mourn its passing,” laments Garner.
Perhaps most saddening to Garner are the implications of a post-letter-writing-era on the literary world. Small memoirs in and of themselves, letters, selected letters, books of letters, etc. have enhanced the canon and the art world immensely. Letters have taught us; Rainer Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet is of his most acclaimed works, and many of Virginia Woolf’s letters have garnered novella status or are read as crucial pieces of feminist theory. Letters are revealing, sexy, and contain multitudes; “Georgia O’Keeffe’s and Alfred Stieglitz’s letters are so steamy they will still burn your fingers,” says Garner. Or the reclusive James Joyce, who issued another side of himself with his love letters to Nora Barnacle his “dirty little f***bird.” Letters have inspired; Jack Kerouac himself claims to have gotten the spontaneous style for On the Road from reading his friend Neal Cassidy’s lively letters.
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It is unlikely that the future holds titles like ‘The Selected Emails of Somebody’ or ‘The Secret Emails of Someone Else’ (well, perhaps this one could ring a bell). These days have likely come to a close. Sad, yes. But let’s remember how great letters were with some great title recs for your summer:
The Source of Self-Regard (Toni Morrison)
Selected Letters of Oscar Wilde edited by Rupert Hart-Davis