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Can the letter survive in the digital age?

A love letter from Edward VIII is seen at Christie’s auction house in Rome, June 16, 2004.


British author Simon Garfield foresees that the last letter will be sent in our lifetime. "The licking of a stamp will seem as antiquated to a future generation as the paddle steamer," he writes in his new book, To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing, which traces the beauty and value of the craft.

Given that Canada Post is ceasing home delivery in cities, his predictions sound about right. "It's actually earlier than I thought," Garfield said in a phone interview from Cornwall, England.

While he isn't anti-e-mail, he gets wistful about the sound an envelope makes when it falls on the doormat.

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Beyond nostalgia, however, "it's more of a concern about the way we write and the way we're going to archive our history," Garfield said, pointing to the prevalence of texts and tweets.

"My kids are regarding e-mail as too much of an effort. The tendency is to write in shorter and shorter bursts. Will that mean that we don't express ourselves in a way that we can look back in a 100 years and say: 'This is what we thought?' Is it all going to be in the ether?"

According to Canada Post's 2012 annual report, the amount of mail delivered to each address fell 24 per cent from 2008 to 2012. The decline of letter writing is irreversible; what reason is there to do it these days?

Here, Garfield expounds on the merits of a dying art.

A 'slower cerebral whirring'

"The temptation is just to go tech all the time, to be faster and snappier and shorter," Garfield said. A small but worldwide movement of pen pals who congregate on websites such as and The Rumpus have recognized that letter writing is part of the "slow-everything" movement.

"One's day slows down a bit. You have to make allowances and set aside a lot more time for it," said Garfield, who recommends doing both e-mail and snail mail, occasionally. He pens letters three times a week, including to an aunt in Israel who is hard of hearing.

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Letters require more thought

"One reaches down into one's mind and, up to a point, soul slightly deeper," he said. Pen-and-paper writers generally have to get it right the first time, while instant communication gets edited and re-edited. With letters, "you size up a week's events and look at those in a slightly more intelligent way than you would if you were constantly reacting, the way you do with tweets or e-mails – with the knowledge that actually, in 10 minutes, you could write another one."

Letters force the crucial stuff

"When people want to make what they think is an important point, they write their letter," Garfield said. He points to George Clooney, who revealed in an Esquire interview last November that he writes letters when he is "really serious."

The journey, and the destination

Some of those who are writing to keep the tradition alive see letters "almost as pieces of art that one wants to put through the postal service to check if it works still," Garfield said. In his book, he argues that people have far less understanding of how e-mail travels: "It's just another vanishing," he writes, pointing out that hitting send has "no essence of human journey at all."

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E-mail is not a gift

"Our screen life is simply overwhelming," the author writes, likening our obsessive checking of the inbox to scanning a doormat every few minutes to see if the postman has come – a "relentless chore." "People do think you're dead if you don't reply within a day," Garfield said of e-mail. Today, receiving a letter by mail is a gift: "One gets more pleasure from both receiving and writing."

Lost in translation

"Letters tell you more than pixels do," he said. "You can tell quite a lot about someone's handwriting. Are they hurried? Is it tear-stained or perfumed? They have a physical character that e-mail and other forms of electronic communication can't possibly have because everything looks the same."

Sexting versus the love letter

Patient courtship by pen, paper and post? Bring on the paddle steamer. Nobody waits around any more, but to whose detriment? "Can you write a love e-mail?" Garfield wonders. "Some say, of course, that it's about the emotion. But are you happy rereading those on the computer?" He describes how one of his sons met a woman in Lisbon while travelling. Both back home, they began e-mailing. It quickly fizzled; with daily communiqués, "there was nothing significant to report."

Life after e-mail

What will your digital afterlife look like? Garfield said the common thinking on this one is that, as long as people archive their e-mail correctly and don't conceal their passwords, "family and biographers will be able to get a hold of that stuff." Last year, Google launched its "inactive account manager" to help users manage their "digital assets" before they die. "The sheer volume of e-mail would be overwhelming," he noted. "Also you'd probably die of boredom very soon, unless someone is brilliant at filing them." As he puts it in his book: "Will we ever glow when we open an e-mail folder?"

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