“Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.” 

The above quote is from a little book by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke titled “Letters To A Young Poet” which is a collection of 10 letters written to a young man torn between the dream of becoming a poet and the stark reality of having to enter the Austro-Hungarian Army.

This volume has become well-known among aspiring writers and artists all over the world. And what makes it so popular is not that it’s a 12-step guide to literary success. In fact, it’s the opposite. In these 10 letters Rilke paints a picture with words that encompass a vision of life as art embodied in the medium of the letter.

A Brief History Of The Letter

Before the telephone, email and Skype, writing letters used to be the only reliable form of communication between two people separated by physical distance.

The letter is the first form of written human communication with the oldest examples ranging from ancient Egypt and Sumer to parts of the Bible which are simply letters.

The climax of this ancient art of correspondence could arguably be set in what has historically has become known as The Republic Of Letters, describing an international community of scholars and thinkers in the 18th century. To get an idea of the sheer volume of letters and how far they travelled, Stanford created a visualization project called “Mapping the Republic Of Letters” (see screenshot below)

Screenshot from The Mapping The Republic Of Letters Project

Once the telegraph was invented, written messages could be relayed a lot faster.

And the fax-machine made it even more comfortable.

Nowadays, we have many forms of written correspondence from Instant Messaging to Chat to Social Media but if there’s one that is closest to the letter, then it’s the medium of Email.

Letters Between Auto-Responders, Spam And Zero-Inbox

Most emails are structured exactly like letters. They contain a “to” and a “from”, begin with a salutation, state their point and end with a farewell and best wishes.

Since emails are so easy to send and you don’t even have to pay for an envelope or a stamp, a lot of them get sent.

Radicati Group stated in April 2010 that the estimated number of emails sent per day was around 294 billion.

Spelled out, that’s 294,000,000,000 emails every single day!

Around 90 % of these messages are … well.. SPAM.

Surprised?

The fact that we are daily fighting this avalanche of unrelated and irrelevant information (not just on the email-front, mind you) has changed the way we relate to the medium of the letter.

Despite the fact that the email itself is so similar to the letter, we have come to regard and use it very differently and adopted several strategies, among them:

  • Inbox Zero: Trying to keep our Inbox free, so we don’t lose focus
  • Automatic-Filtering: sorting emails and filing them away before we even read them
  • Three Sentences: The shorter you write, the higher the likelihood your mail will get attention and a reply.
  • etc.

Horizontal & Vertical Communication

All these different behaviors have changed the way we relate to the ancient communication device of letters.

And while most of these measures are only natural reactions to information overload and being able to carry on about our business despite of it, we need to draw a line between two kinds of letters, the first being what I’d call functional letters such as cover letters, sales letters, exchanges of messages in a project, etc and the latter being the personal letter.

If you read the letters of Rilke, Newton, Charles Dickens or even Benjamin Franklin (example letters linked) there’s a sense that we have lost this ancient way of communicating to each other.

It’s easy to write this off due to the fact that compared to nowadays these people all basically spoke a different language and therefore their writings seem peculiar, heavy-handed or even sentimental.

But it’s not just this.

There’s a heightened sense of interpersonal sensitivity in these letters, a great sense of respect towards the addressee, even disagreement and/or professional discourse is wrapped in a profound sense of deep contact.

Maybe it’s mere gallantry? The politeness nothing but a front to get their way?

I don’t think so.

Nowadays, the phrase “a long email” is often coupled with implications of something annoying, a complaint, a rant, a written product of indecisiveness or something else which is fundamentally “hard to handle”.

If you compare the examples quoted above to our modern every day communication via IM, chat, email and text messages, you can find two things:

  • we have more contact and exchanges of messages are far more frequent than a few hundred years ago
  • also our messages may have become more superficial.

In the awareness that we can always easily “send another one” we never seem to sit down anymore and devote our time and attention to the simple fact of communicating directly to another person.

Writing and reading a good letter takes time. It’s like a compressed relationship.

There’s no short-cut. It takes time to unfold perspectives in a deep and comprehensive way.

It takes time and attention to really listen, to express how you feel about things in a way which can be understood by others.

Personal expression, according to the Zuckerbergs of our times means clicking a button or sending a message with the content of “I ate an ice-cream” – “I like bananas.”

And while all of that has its place, I wonder what happened to deep written communication in a personal way, as we can see in the example of Rilke and countless others.

Have we forgotten how to do it?

Or have we simply outgrown the need for it?

Has the respect, time and effort we devoted to letters maybe shifted to another arena, such as writing blog posts?

Is it possible to write long emails that promote understanding and appreciation instead of misunderstanding and annoyance?

What are your experiences? Feel free to leave a comment below.

img: Attribution CC by kevinzimvia Flickr / screenshot from youtube