Is the handwritten letter a dying art?

Canada Post is “disappearing before our eyes,” says expert

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“Dear reader, I hope this finds you well. It’s been so long since I last wrote.”

Confused? You likely are if you were born in the digital era. For others, this introduction will recall faded memories of thank-you notes to grandmothers, chatty missives to pen pals and melancholy dispatches from long-departed expats. Young or old, savour that stilted opening; for the death knell is being sounded — yet again — for the handwritten letter.

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Earlier this year campaigners in Britain warned a proposed cut to delivery days amid the dominance of social-media messaging, texting and emailed business correspondence — plus the rising cost of stamps — could signal the end of letter-writing.

Royal Mail has suggested delivering second-class mail on every other weekday, rather than the current six days a week, as it grapples with first-half losses this year of $540 million.

Dinah Johnson, of the Handwritten Letter Appreciation Society (HLAS), was not found well by this announcement.

She told The Times of London: “Writing a letter is so much more personal than an email or WhatsApp message. It is something that Royal Mail have never really promoted or valued.”

For its part, Royal Mail insisted “letters remain important to us.” Then it shared some ugly numbers: letter volumes have plunged from a peak of 20 billion a year in 2004-2005 to seven billion in 2022- 2023, and are tipped to fall to four billion in five years.

“We have run numerous market campaigns and letter-writing initiatives to promote the value of letters,” a spokesman said. “But we can’t turn back the tide.”

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In Australia, where isolation and mass immigration once encouraged putting pen to paper, the postal service is also mulling delivery cuts.

It sees no end to the “unstoppable decline” of snail-mail and predicts letter-writing will be all but extinct by the end of the decade.

France’s La Post has already moved to a three-days-a-week service, but it has offered a glimmer of hope with an innovative option in which customers can send an email to the postal service that is then printed and delivered the next day.

Here at home, Canada Post is “disappearing before our eyes,” according to Carleton University business professor Ian Lee, quoted by the CBC. It lost $290 million in the third quarter of 2023, and Lee estimated letter mail is collapsing by six to eight per cent every year.

The corporation delivered roughly 2.5 billion pieces of mail in 2020, more than 50 per cent less than its peak in 2006.

Letters have had a good run. The first is reckoned to have been sent by the Persian Queen Atossa in around 500 BC, while the Romans — the “first true letter-writers” — relied on them to run their empire. The ancient Greeks wrote of their conquests on wax or clay tablets, using a stylus. In the Byzantine Empire, certain letters were so revered they were read aloud in front of an audience.

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Through the centuries, letters have documented our triumphs and our tragedies, our loves won and lost, our worries both profound and prosaic. They’ve illuminated the minds of our foremost thinkers, writers and entertainers. As Simon Garfield writes in his book To The Letter: A Curious History of Correspondence, they have been the “silent conduit of the worthy

and the incidental, the time we were coming for dinner, the account of our marvellous day, the weightiest joys and sorrow of love.”

To be sure, some are wearyingly banal. But the best — be they mushy odes to romance or ‘Dear John’ breakup notes — are what the German writer Goethe called “the most immediate breath of life.”

John Kerouac was purportedly inspired to write his 1957 Beat Generation epic On The Road by reading the fizzing letters from his friend Neal Cassady, while Ernest Hemingway took refuge from the “awful responsibility of writing” by bashing out a letter or two.

Its hallmark has often been the biting bon mot, and few bettered H.G. Wells’ 1938 epigram to one Ernest Saville Peck, the mayor of Cambridge, England. It read: “My dear Mayor, I stole your hat. I like your hat. I shall keep your hat. Whenever I look inside it I shall think of you and your excellent dry sherry, and of the town of Cambridge. I take off your hat to you.”

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Bookstore shelves groan with such gems, compiled in compendiums of correspondence by the great and good.

But will digital-only generations be robbed of the innermost thoughts — and cutting quips — of the towering figures of the future?

Author Garfield fears the future for letters is bleak — “the licking of a stamp will seem as antiquated to a future generation as the paddle steamer.”

Data backs him up: in a survey reported by the Daily Express, nearly a third of teenagers conceded they had never written a letter, though 89 per cent had sent an email, that electronic upstart that is now itself in danger of becoming obsolete, or at least déclassé.

But wait a minute, Mr. Postman. Pundits have been burying letter- writing since at least 1840 when ‘yours snobbishly’ said the advent of the penny stamp would open it to the great unwashed — “cheapening an art form best left to the professionals.” Can it see off the naysayers once more? Peter Slattery, a research fellow at Monash University in Australia who writes on behavioural science, thinks so. Letters, he told The Guardian, will be associated in future with high-value communications, leaving the humdrum to high-tech. People simply “value getting a letter a lot more,” he noted.

Much of what Dinah Johnson, of HLAS, and others are fighting so hard to preserve is difficult to quantify — which is surely part of the appeal — but New Zealand writer and critic Katherine Mansfield summarized it most poetically. Writing to a friend in 1915, she said: “This is not a letter but my arms around you for a brief moment.”

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