Letters strung into words. Words into sentences. Sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs grouped back into letters. An accidental full circle of sorts. This process has pushed our species forward for thousands of years in ways we can only attempt to fathom.
“If your home and everything you own were to burn to the ground, what would be the one thing you’d run back in to save?”
Only in the last 70 years or so has the answer shifted to be, almost universally, “Photographs.” For most of human history, the answer to that question would have been “letters.” I daresay that even as recently as the 1940s, many people would have had a difficult time choosing between their most beloved letters and their most beloved photographs. While the latter most certainly kept the image of a loved one more fresh in the memory, the former holds more of the writer’s soul (that is, if the letter writer wrote at-all decent letters.)
Last night I watched Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. My feelings on the movie will take a while to parse through, but one of the most memorable scenes involves the letters the two main characters send back and forth to one another.
Country musician Kasey Musgraves is a clever songwriter and damn easy on the eyes, but my favorite pictures on her Instagram account are excerpts from her childhood diary… at least, they are once I can get past the fact that “her childhood” and “1997” existed in the same moment.
Something like one-quarter of the entire New Testament is letters.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, set sometime in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, is told through a series of letters written by the protagonist to a semi-anonymous other who never once actually appears in the context of the story.
We are a species that loves to overreact, to be sure. So perhaps it is overreaction to worry that, by making words easier to write (word processing), easier to keep (digital storage), easier to send (the Internets), and easier to spread to a nigh-immeasurable audience (The Twitters), we have unintentionally rendered them, by sheer volume, weaker.
Words now surround us all the time, every day. We drown in words, even as we talk about the younger generations not “reading” enough. (By which we clearly mean books and news, paragraphs and pages.)
It seems like we have gone from experiencing words as drops of rain to experiencing them as a flood in our lives. As a full-circle analogy, we are like the fish in the introduction to David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement address (“This is Water”), an address that uses the power of words strung together to make synapses fire in a way that makes you think, feel, and believe all over again in the power of written expression.
We are so drenched in text messages, Tweets, status updates, news tickers, stream feeds, photo captions and comments, that we have put ourselves at risk of remembering that words are at their most powerful when they are strung together in long form.
For Paradise Lost to have an audience today, it would have to be a haiku. And that's not much of a paradise worth keeping.
I hope we can find a way, as a culture and a species, to rekindle our love and hunger for the creatively-composed word. That is, letters put into words, carefully strung into sentences, artfully structured into paragraphs, and delicately, brilliantly compiled into letters, or pages, or poems, or novels. If we lose our emotional connection to the written word and its transcendent powers, we will have become something other than human. We will have evolved to a point where we’ve lost a part of us that stretches back to the early adolescence of our species.
NOTE: By act of serendipity, I opened up my latest Atlantic Monthly, my “before I fall asleep” reading, and ran across “How the Novel Made the Modern World” only hours after writing this. It seems a more detailed, and better-written companion piece to my concerns.