January 10, 2010

Letters Never Sent

Every day I receive and send ethereal sacks full of ‘email’ (the very word sticks in my craw: it so denigrates French enamel). In days of yore I would have been considered a man of letters, and would have welcomed the duty of daily correspondence; but since everyone sends electronic communications in large quantities the distinction seems to have been lost, and I confess that I find such e-pistles a chore. A hand-written letter could never have been considered ‘junk’, but I am afraid that many of my well-intentioned missives now end up being lost in, or fetched from, invidious ‘spam’ folders. I have never had a close relationship with processed ‘meat’, and resent being implicated by association. Opening an email is to opening a letter what buying a book online is to buying a book in a shop. It lacks the richness of experience: the simple sensual pleasures of touch and smell; it lacks a sense of personal connection.

I have tried to write letters, but in vain. Those I have sent are met with thanks or response by email, which rather short-circuits the intention. To keep my hand in – and everyone should, by the way; penmanship is a sophisticated art that used to be taught in schools – I write with a pen whenever I can. Professional writings, I admit, begin life in some hideous word-processing software (has anybody else noticed that Microsoft has appropriated the abbreviation for manuscript?), but all the editing – all the writerly work – takes place on paper, with pen and ink. The crossings-out map processes of thought otherwise eliminated by the backspace key. I annotate the books I own. Some would no doubt argue that this is a mortal sin, but I find the marginalia of others fascinating, and leave my own marks just in case some future researcher ever thinks me interesting enough to study! Besides, I have always found my notes to be interesting reminders of past cogitations: they are autobiographical in the most surprising ways. And I scribble bits and pieces, these thoughts for example, in a timeless black jotter.

People have forgotten – those a little younger than I never have known – about the smell of ink. It really does imbue the written word with a certain je ne sais quoi. A good pen (do not trouble me with ballpoints) puts one in touch with the elegant tool use of our most literate forebears. And, unlike the altogether temporary tools that comprise our computing arsenals, it will last forever if properly maintained. I had the great fortune of receiving mine (pictured) as a gift, and I could hardly think of anything better. Yet even if you are not so lucky, I would encourage the investment: it will put you in touch with yourself in such a way that your computer never could. These days the white-collar proof of labour, not to mention its malingering excuse, is RSI of the wrist. Such effete complaints would truly have shocked and appalled the clerks of yesteryear. I propose that it is preferable, and never unbecoming, for a man accidentally to betray his labour by the ink on his hands. An inky finger, after all, suggests an active mind.


  1. Ok, Julian here. Can't figure out how else to leave a comment other than anonymously.
    I wondering if, as a manliness expert, you had any theory to offer as to why the expensive pen is seen as such a quintessentially male accessory and gift item? Certainly there was a time when women would be far less likely to be undersigning any important documents or cheques, but there is a long tradition of female epistolary correspondence, which one would perhaps expect would have cultivated an appreciation for fine "writing instruments" among the fairer sex as well. Do you think the pen acts in men as a kind of phallic extension? You certainly seem to derive an inordinate amount of pleasure from operating yours, even if does mean betraying the labour of an active mind by the occasional stainage.

  2. On the contrary Julian, I'm not sure I do see it as a quintessentially male accessory. Though I think it highly becoming of a man to write, often, with a good pen, I think it no less becoming of a woman. One of my long-running points will be that things which confer manliness on men are not necessarily exclusive to men; which is not to say that they also confer manliness on women, for although I would make a case for such a thing, polite usage generally would frown upon it. Rather, I emphasise virtues, which may be coined differently according to the bearer thereof. I will gloss over your phallic allusions and merely say that my good wife's fascination with scribing tools predates mine, and does her credit.

  3. Dear VB,

    I am most delighted with your serendipitous discovery of my blog. While the luxury of idle hours evades me, I do plan on promptly devouring your writings with suitable gusto.


  4. I love handwriting with a good ink pen, but like you I also find most of mine is now done with a computer.

    I wrote a letter to a good friend last week. I was using my good pen, nice headed paper, but I did face a problem. It can be hard to know quite what to write when you know that in the week or two the letter will take to deliver I will have spoken to the person and probably messaged or emailed them most days. I still really enjoy the process though.

    I also recently bought a nice leather bound pad in an attempt to write my next manuscript in ink first; I must say that I am finding the process rewarding and it's nice to be away from the inherent distractions of the computer but it's also very time taking so I'm not getting very far.

  5. The time invested will no doubt reap rich dividends. I hope that you occasionally do your writing in said leather-bound pad in a public place. The kinds of conversations and chance encounters this must bring about must, I imagine, be rewarding.


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