Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Email prevents ulcers

Today I read this story about Internet cables in the Mediterranean Sea being cut, and the trouble this has caused in various places. Also today, I have been reading The Egyptologist, by Arthur Phillips. Large parts of the novel are in the form of letters, and some of these letters were written in the 1920s.

One of the things that I started thinking about, as I was reading these letters, was the long time lag between their writing and reading. A man and woman exchange letters. She is in the U.S.A.; he is in Egypt. There are several weeks between dispatch and receipt. (Telegrams got through quickly, of course, but were saved for important, brief, news flashes.)

But if you go back a few decades before that then there would have been no telegraph either, and I tried to imagine how it would have felt for a fiancĂ©e (or fiancĂ©, or spouse, or relative) writing long, detailed letters to someone who – who knows? – might not exist any more. Imagine the people who emigrated from the U.K. to the U.S., or New Zealand, or Australia. Imagine writing a letter to your son or daughter across the world, and knowing that whatever you write will be totally outdated by the time it arrives. Imagine writing across the distance of space and time and culture like that. It must have felt very different from the way it feels now.

Imagine how carefully you would write.

We have come a long way in a century, from being grateful for mail that arrives six weeks after it is sent across the world, to expecting our LOLs to arrive instantaneously.

A long time ago, after I split up with a boyfriend, we used to write to each other. I had moved to another town. Neither of us had much money, so we used mail rather than telephone to keep in touch.

One day he phoned me. He sounded really worried, and asked me how I was.

"I'm fine," I said, somewhat puzzled.

"Are you sure?" he asked. "I'm really worried about you."

"Yes, I'm fine!" I said, a little irritated at his concern. I was not a child, but he was behaving like an anxious parent. "Why were you worried?"

"Your letter!" he said. "I thought you were going to commit suicide!"

I had completely forgotten writing that letter. I'd had a bad few days and told him all about it in a long letter, which I then sealed and posted right away. Then I felt much better, probably because I'd written the whole thing (whatever it was) out of my system.

Then I forgot I'd even sent it, until he called to make sure I was still alive.

It's just as well I live in the age of instantaneous communication. Imagine if that letter had taken six weeks to get there, and the reply had taken six weeks to get back, and my apologetic reply had taken another six weeks to reassure.

The way I write, everybody I communicated with who actually cared about me would have ended up with ulcers.


kenju said...

There's a lesson there. Maybe when we DO write letters, we ought to hold them for a day or two before we amil them.

Pkchukiss said...

The only letters I get are bills, statements, and the occasional greeting card from my financial adviser. I've not gotten a piece of handwritten work since 1997, when my primary school teacher had an idea for us to write letter to our future selves.

After she collected it at the end of the week, I forgot about it until 2001, when I saw my own untidy scrawl on the envelope. It really is weird writing to yourself; but it is more spooky to read a letter written by a younger you!

Lia said...

That's a new reason to appreciate instant communication. I never thought of it like that.