Not so long ago, the only real way of communicating with people who were far away was to send them letters. This practice of letter writing had been around for a very very long time. The earliest civilizations with writing (so that would be the Sumerians and their cuneiform tablets) sent what was their equivalent of letters to people that were too distant to talk to. Granted at that period of time the only persons who did that were the super elite who had the power to send messengers back and forth. For a long time this practice continued. Almost all civilizations had some form of letter writing. The Chinese wrote on scrolls, the Europeans wrote on vellum. They were probably only for important matters and not like the fairly recent practice of writing to keep in touch personally with another individual.
Letter writing started becoming more formalized and popular in the 1700s amongst the upper classes and over time it percolated downwards through the classes. As it's popularity grew so did the efficiency of the delivery system. Our modern postal system is incredibly complicated. Just pause for a moment and think about how organized a system is that can get a physical object from point A in Windsor to point B in Paris in less then a week! I think the first World War really helped the popularity of letter writing because for many it was the only way that people could communicate over large distances as was often the case.
But enough about the history of the art of letter writing and onto why I believe it should be kept alive. Letters are personal. You have to physically sit down and write it out by hand (or typewriter more recently). For this process to occur you have to put a lot of effort into the letter. You must choose your words carefully and be mindful of the limited space that you have to express whatever needs expressing. Maybe it's not as "real" or "personal" because you don't get the raw thoughts of somebody. Rather in a letter you get a more refined version which depending on the situation can be good or bad. The letter can be hand written, further increasing the personal effort put into the letter. Holding the letter you know that whoever wrote it placed each and everyone of those lines with their own hands onto that page.
After the letter is written you have to place it in an envelope and purchase postage (this also helps to refine the content of the letter. The fact that it isn't free.) and then place it in the nearest mailbox, which isn't always nearby.
The whole process involved in letter writing forces it to be very refined and very concentrated; there is no room for anything overly false.
This fact combined with the physical and very real existence of the letter makes it really very personal. You can't hold an email or a phone conversation or even a real conversation in your hand. You can't re-read it over and over again. You can't carry it with you. You can't show it to people or frame it.
I think we've lost a lot of this closeness in our modern electronic world. Emails take no effort to send off. Just tap tap tap, click and it's arrived. You don't really have to think about it, you just send it when it's convenient. Instant messaging even less so. Just type and enter and you get an instant reply. Even with a phone conversation you don't get as personal as a letter (in my humble opinion). Sure it's like conversing with some next to you, but you don't have to be concentratedly personal. I am aware of how ironic the fact that this is a blog post is. But in some ways this is closer to letter writing then email.
Maybe this is me being very romantic about the ideal letter. I admit that letters don't have to be super personal. In fact a lot of the time it can be very fake. How is the weather there? Has the new fall line arrived yet? Those aren't personal, but letters hold the potential to be uber personal. I'm looking at what each of our forms of communications has the potential to be. An email no matter how much more convenient it is can never be as personal as a hand written letter. If one really tried I suppose it could be done, but it wouldn't be hand written.
Letters can't replace real contact with a person I don't think. A letter can never hug you when you are sad , or celebrate when you are joyous. But when being close to someone is impossible, a letter is as personal as it gets. Maybe video recordings will get change all of that. Seeing and hearing someone is a lot more personal, but letters have had a long time to mature and evovle into what it is today.
So I would leave you with a suggestion today. Send someone a letter. Maybe a grandparent who knows and misses the days of old when people wrote to each other. Perhaps to a friend who has yet to discover the marvels of letters. Maybe even to someone who will never read it because they aren't to read it anymore. All that matters is you put yourself onto the written page, and make it personal.