Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The Lost Art of the Letter

On Monday night, I watched an item on BBC News about a new Van Gogh biography that attempts to explode the legend that the troubled artist committed suicide. The primary research materials have been the thousands of letters left by Van Gogh and it got me thinking. So many biographies rely on correspondence either written to, by or about the figure in question, and letters usually provide the largest body of material due to their inherent "keepsake" nature. Call me a Luddite, but there's something irresistable about the letter. Emails don't make that satisfying "thwap" sound on the doormat. They don't have the same tangible feel, and they don't feature random doodles. The lack of handwriting makes them so impersonal.

It did make me wonder exactly what form future biographies will take. Will they quote casual tweets as an indicator of a person's mental wellbeing? Will access be granted to inboxes to allow researchers to comb through years of spam and Facebook notifications? Will blog posts become the favoured means of communication, replacing the personal correspondence of a beloved or notorious figure? As our private lives become increasingly public through the use of social media...will there even be a place for the biography?

8 comments:

afullnessinbrevity said...

I miss writing letters (I see no reason why we can't resurrect the art form). There is something satisfying in the physical and mechanical act of writing.
I also think we have blurred the boundaries of public and private spheres of life. What was once private i.e. letter writing, is now expressed in a public domain (social media). The irony is the belief that social media is a "private" expression of ideas.
Perhaps in the future, our autobiographies will be living documents as found on our blogs, or an Orwellian nightmare as we revisit our early blogging selves and edit history :)
Adam B @revhappiness

Carrie Clevenger said...

My handwriting is crap. The only time I pick up a pen is to sign my name or to write a check. Sad, really.

Chad said...

I've thought that same thing. For a while now I've been researching Shane Stevens for a book. One of my primary references has been the letters he wrote to other writers. There's something more personal about letters. Sure there are blog posts now, but I think, for the most part, there's a distance maintained in social media that isn't in a letter.

Laurita said...

All very good points and questions. I love getting actual letters in the mail, and I love sending them too, though I don't do it nearly as often as I used to. It really becoming a lost art.

Tony Noland said...

I keep letters from friends and family. From the mid-1980's to around 2000, I'd need several files folders per year. This has tapered off more and more. Now, I've been using the same folder for the past 2 years. Paper has certainly given way to electronic communication.

What will this mean for my future biographers? They'll have to reconstruct my life via Google, Wayback and other search engines. My life and personality will be interpreted from my blog posts, my stories, my interviews, all the comments I left on websites and the self-aggrandizing lies I told about myself on LinkedIn.

Icy Sedgwick said...

Personally I love writing letters and I miss having people to correspond with - most people say they'd love to write letters but then the length of time it takes to craft something decent dawns on them, and the enterprise is either quietly forgotten, or moved to a digital format.

storytreasury said...

It's a good question. I don't know if tweets are saved, but it's hardly the same. Tweets and blogs are all public. Email and maybe private messages would be closer, except does anyone save those?

Michael A Tate said...

Of course they will be biographies...somebody has to be the one to sift through all the tweets and blog posts to find the ones that actually matter :)

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