Continuing the email theme, here’s a familiar lament from Megan Marshall: email is so impersonal in comparison to handwritten letters:

“Please keep me alive with letters,” wrote V.S. Naipaul in 1952 from Oxford to his sister Kamla in Trinidad. Nineteen and devastated by the rejection of his first novel, he was suffering from a loneliness so severe it resulted in a nervous breakdown. Maybe Naipaul wouldn’t have felt so lonely if he and Kamla could have Skyped regularly or filed updates for each other and scads of “friends” on Facebook. Or would Vido have felt even worse? Is the virtual friend any more than a tease when genuine comfort is needed? Please keep me alive with your e-mails — ? It’s an appeal only Google could love.

So when people are separated from their loved ones, why do they Skype or email or IM instead of writing letters? Are they just stupid? Or do they want their loneliness to be assuaged now rather than three days from now?

Many years ago I spent a summer teaching in Nigeria, and I missed my wife very badly. I wanted to hear her voice. So I caught a ride to the nearest city, Ilorin and found a telephone office. It consisted of a desk with a clerk who took down your information and collected your money, and a set of five or six booths with telephones. I waited a few minutes for my turn, got a phone, and (through a scratchy and echo-filled connection) got to talk to Teri and find out that she was well and tell her that I was well.

Perhaps a letter would have been more romantic in the eyes of future generations — and we might well treasure, in our old age, letters we had exchanged then. Those are considerations. But at the time I wasn’t thinking about any of that, because I missed my beloved. If email or IM had been available I would have used that, and Skype video would have been best of all. So sue me.

(Also, shouldn’t Marshall at least acknowledge that this lament has been written several thousand times since the invention of email?)

Text Patterns

December 7, 2009


  1. I'm glad you hit on the key word toward the end: romance. If I could venture a perhaps-too-skeptical-and-biographical guess, I would bet that Marshall finds unromantic the technologies that weren't around when she was first experiencing romance. I think everyone today understands the potential romance of the telephone thanks to movies of the 50's and stories like yours. It's harder for a lot of people to see it with IM and email, but for most people in their 20s, the two technologies have played a large part in romance. (I'm reluctant to cite You've Got Mail, but clearly many people have been able to see the romance in both email and IM.)

    Perhaps this is my own particular date of coming-of-age exposing itself, but I find it easier to draw the line at something like text messaging, given both the character limitations and the ease with which it can be used to keep several people on several burners at once, but all easily at arm's length.

  2. A bit of personal opinion from personal experience:

    My lady love and I live about 30 miles apart. Not only do I get to see her regularly due to the wonders of the automobile, but we can converse every day through the medium of the cell phone text message, or through Gmail chat.

    There's a lot that goes into which technologies we choose to use. I can use Gmail and texting at work, but not facebook. My brother prefers long phone conversations with his even more distant girl. I hate phone conversations, so I prefer text.

    And both me and my girl are planning to write each other romantic, handwritten things this Christmas as presents.

    So the upshot: it's a lot more complicated that any simple "handwriting = romance, email = not romance" scheme. But, then, isn't that always the way it is with romance?

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