The Language Of The Handwritten Letter

On November 9th, 2012, I wrote about all the little things in life that I missed, partly due to advances into the digital age.  Specifically, one of the major things I yearn for today is all the handwritten letters I used to receive via postal mail, and perhaps even more, the ability to write and send the replies via postal mail to my friends and loved ones.

In my younger years, long before the Internet and digital age, a handful of my closest friends used to send letters to one another that explained, in hand written words, where we were, what we were doing, and almost picture-perfect maps of where we hoped to be in the future.  Hand written letters were like snapshots of where we were, where we were going, and who and where we hoped to be in the future.  At the time, my friends and I took time to write our letters to one another, and each letter that arrived in the mail was a gift in and of itself; a message that took time, thought, creativity, and patience to create, and a message that went on its very own journey from the sender to the recipient.

One of my friends found his calling in life at a very early age.  The day he turned 18, he decided to live a life as a vagabond and travel the world with as few possessions as possible.  Before he left, he wrote down my parents mailing address in his travelogue, just in case I too decided to travel, he would always have a permanent place to mail correspondence. His travelogue soon became his most prized and valuable possession, and he vowed to have it published the day he decided to settle down.  His name was Mike Rogers, and the last time I saw him was at Camp Chateaugay; it was the summer of 1996.

For many years, I would receive written letters in the mail from Mike, in which at the very beginning of every letter, he would explicitly state the date, time, and exact location from where he was writing the letter.  Over the years, he would send me a letter approximately every few months, and with each subsequent letter to follow, he would be a little bit further from his home in Massachusetts.  He would often write about his latest adventures, and poke fun at the various odd jobs he would take on for money to pay for food or travel, though most of the time, he would barter services in exchange for a place to stay instead of paying money for a hotel room or hostel, such as the time he spent several months working on an ocean freighter in order to reach Europe.

Then one day, the letters from my friend Mike inexplicably stopped.  To this day, I haven’t heard from him, and sadly, I was never able to send a reply back simply because he never stayed in one place very long, let alone any place where he would be able to obtain a specific address.

From the time of my youth, and all the way through college, I kept a written correspondence regimen with my closest friends. Typically, I’d send about one letter every few weeks, sometimes I’d wait longer, as I often wanted to wait until there was news worthy of sharing in a written letter.  I had an archive of written letters that I’d received over the years, sorted by date.  In a strange, vicarious way, an archive of letters was reminiscent of a hand written journal through the eyes of a close friend.

When I attended college, in 1998, I was given an email address through the university.  At the time, I was one of the very few people I knew who used email, so it got very little, if any use, other than simple updates back-and-fourth between me and my parents.  The digital age replaced a lot of the things I had grown up with, and took for granted.  I slowly watched the transition from hand written letters to email.  A little bit at a time, my closest friends, with whom I’d spent years corresponding via written letters with, started seeking electronic forms of communication.  At first, the emails were about the same length and content as their hand written counterparts, but as the years went by, the quality, clarity, and content began to fade, until ultimately the communications turned into short one or two paragraph notes.

Then, just like the letters from my traveling friend, Mike, the emails stopped coming through.  When MySpace came along in 2003, all of my friends used the website for their personal communications, including their private email.  Never being a social butterfly myself (I’m very introverted), or feeling comfortable posting the innocuous details of my daily life online, I was a late-adopter.  For a short time, I enjoyed the almost constant communication with my long-time friends.  Facebook then made its debut in early 2004, and my friends slowly began to transition there, and eventually deleting their MySpace accounts.  I used Facebook for a few years, but slowly became overwhelmed, then eventually tired with the concept, and thus closed my accounts on MySpace and Facebook.

I wish that I could return to the days of hand written letters, with all of their glory, simplicity, security, and the emotional feelings that can only be expressed through ones own handwriting.  While many things have gone digital, and have improved significantly, the one thing that should never have made the transition was handwritten correspondence between close friends.  And while the digital age is surely upon us, I will likely always prefer writing letters by hand, and narrative prose within the pages of my Moleskine notebook instead of composing my writing using a computer.  Although typing on a computer keyboard is faster, allows for spell correction, and easy undetectable erasure of mistakes, nothing can truly ever replace the timeless experience of writing on paper.


  • Harvey Slatin

    The Language Of The Written Letter is a beautiful piece of prose. I wonder, since you have scores of letters from your missing friend and possibly copies of letters you wrote to him, (not a usual procedure; E-mail copies are usually available), you might consider publishing or sharing. I can relate a similar story where (you will recall) a friend disappeared for nearly twenty years and then, out of the blue, surfaced and resumed a shared life with his family. It could happen again.

    • Thomas

      First of all, thanks for your praise of my work, Dad! Secondly, I hope you’re right, as I’d love to get back into contact with Mike. He was one of the small handful of most interesting people I’ve met in my life. I’d love to hear some of his stories.

  • Jeffrey Miller

    The loss of the handwritten letter also robs future generations of insight to the thoughts and day-to-day activities of those who came before. People like John Qunicy Adams wrote letters or made journal entries every day of their lives. Today, unless one is a forensic computer tech, few people will have that kind of access. It helps to make researching our ancestors so interesting … more than just certain events and birth, marriage and death dates.

    • Thomas

      I’m very old-school when it comes to my writing. Everything I write (including what gets posted here) is first written in a paper notebook, then once all the edits are complete (again, in the same paper notebook), the content is posted online. Forget what folks in IT will tell you about backups, RAID systems, or non-volitle memory systems. They are ALL prone to failure at one time or another. Even things like CD-ROM disks can go bad. Paper is the most redundantly-accessible format that has ever existed (well, besides carved stone), and if I leave my notebooks to the younger generation, my writing will surely be around well after I’m gone.

  • Ken Beckwith

    Also consider digital pictures that will be lost- machines and formats change- the only images that have not faded from my childhood are the black and white photographs.

    • Thomas

      I’m partially to blame for going digital with my photography. Several years ago, I went all-digital, which has helped me cut photography costs. I’m considering, however, purchasing a medium-format camera that uses 120 mm film simply because such detail and color depth will likely never become available digitally, within my lifetime. And to post the photos on my website, I’d have to pay a little extra to have them professionally scanned. All in all, it’s worth the added expense.

  • Anne Slatin

    I have read that many schools no longer are teaching cursive handwriting. As a professional genealogist, who regularly reads 18th & 19th century hand-written documents, this is a scary scenario. How many current young people will want to research their ancestries, in their later years? How will they accomplish this without knowing how to read & write cursive? Will they have to hire interpreters?

    • Thomas

      I have read that many schools no longer are teaching cursive handwriting.

      Where did you read this? That’s the most ludicrous thing I have ever heard, especially coming from the modern educational system.

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