Wondering Out Loud

The rebirth of written communication

In a Wall Street Journal piece, author Orson Scott Card puts forth the theory that, among the many benefits it has delivered to society, the Internet has turned the tide and made the work of historians easier. Now that may seem obvious once it is stated, but to those who’ve been in the business of preserving and analyzing history for the past several decades it is also a blessing.

Card opens his column recalling an exchange with his father-in-law, himself a historian:

My father-in-law is a historian, and about 20 years ago he mentioned his concern that cheap long-distance telephoning was going to make the work of future historians far harder.

“Letters are one of our best sources of information about the past, but these days nobody writes letters—they just call.”

“Yes, and I hate that,” I said. “Interrupting what I’m doing right now because this is the moment when it’s convenient for them to call.”

Little did we know that both of us were about to get our wish.

Having grown up in the era of written (in ink) communication – letters, thank you cards, party invitations, birthday cards, etc.  –  I have lamented the loss of the art. But I never considered the treasure trove of historical information that was bleeding away during the gap in time between the explosion of telephone communication and the advent of email.

Two of the most prolific letter writers in US history were John and Abigail Adams. Imagine how difficult a job David McCullough would have had writing his magnificent biography of Adams if not for the hundreds of quill-penned communications between the two. Think how much poorer we would be as a country if we did not have such as intimate insight to two people who were critical to the founding of the USofA.

What would we really know about either of them, their relationship, the inner most thoughts and ideas about what they were going through if John had had the ability to simply pick up a phone and give Abigail a call from Philadelphia or Paris?

I will still, from time to time, lament the loss of the ink-written letter, but having read Card’s wonderful column I will do so knowing that his father-in-law is now preserving and analyzing history by scouring electronic communications.


December 15, 2010 - Posted by | Communications | , , , , , , , , , ,

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