Bruce Maiman is a former radio show host who lives in Rocklin. Reach him at brucemaiman@gmail.com.

Viewpoints: Lots of mail, but personal letters stand out

Published: Tuesday, Apr. 23, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 9A

In last week's column about the U.S. Postal Service, Bruce Miller, a frequent online commenter, wrote: "I still love checking the mail. Usually it's just bills and junk mail, but every so often there's a letter from someone I've not talked to for a while, or a card with a note. I'd hate to lose that."

Aside from sharing a first name, Bruce and I are of a certain generation that appreciates the idea of the personal letter – something written by hand on real stationery, placed in a stamped envelope and dropped in the mailbox.

Letter writing has always been one of civilized society's better things. Today, everything seems to conspire against it.

We're too busy, we say. We rarely get family news by mail anymore unless it's one of those infernal Christmas chronicles recapping the past year's to-dos; letter writing, reduced to the frequency of a holiday occasion.

Or it's too slow. "Snail mail" isn't intended as a descriptor but an insult. We prefer instead to email, text, tweet and Facebook, but emails are hasty missives, texts too cryptic, tweets but 140 characters. Facebook postings satisfy self-indulgence.

In a letter, we pause, and reflect.

Even a letter to the editor is deliberate and signed; online comments to a newspaper article get nasty and curt, usually because they're anonymous.

Emails in particular have the illusion of secrecy and a latent air of deceit; a letter is intimate and the writer, genuine. You don't just write, you compose, because a letter isn't just about you, it's about the person who receives it. How many of us have started a letter over because our first attempt had so many mistakes or wasn't just so?

In today's digital age, where spelling and punctuation take a back seat, I wonder if we'll one day reduce letter writing to a lost art.

I can't imagine the mounds of paper arriving daily in mailboxes without so much as a single handwritten note. The closest you get is someone's signature on a form letter with a bogus sales pitch, and even then the signature isn't written but stamped. It's sad that junk mail costs less to send than a personal letter, even though a personal letter offers far greater reward than any promise from a fly-by-night real estate agent, let alone the inevitable political flier.

True, junk mail helps pay the bills at the much-maligned Postal Service, but I dare say I haven't received five personal letters in 10 years. Slowly, the personal letter is taking its place alongside the malt shop and the drive-in, the drug store and penny candy, the milkman and seltzer from a siphon bottle.

Some of our best history has come from personal letters of famous people uncovered by diligent scholars. Mozart wrote 41 symphonies, 27 piano concertos, nearly two-dozen operas and hundreds of chamber works. Yet his 1,200 letters to family and friends not only recount his professional life but also reveal a wicked sense of humor, contempt for aristocracy and a schoolboy obsession with bodily functions. That's right; the composer of "Don Giovanni" loved a good fart joke.

In her biography, "Team of Rivals," historian Doris Kearns Goodwin captures an unparalleled portrait of Abraham Lincoln, in no small measure due to hundreds of letters written by Cabinet members who first distrusted him and gradually grew to admire, respect and love him. Yet Lincoln's letter to his stepbrother telling him he wasn't going to get an $80 loan tells you something about Abraham Lincoln that the Gettysburg Address never could. As Goodwin puts it, the letters reveal a "Lincoln liberated from his familiar frockcoat and stovepipe hat."

Letters add insight and perspective. We learn more about someone who wrote a letter they weren't expecting anyone to read than we learn from their carefully crafted public statements. We say real things in letters.

Somewhere I have old love letters. In retrospect they're mostly silly or trite but they never are when you first get them, open them and read them. And they're better than a phone call, because you can keep them. I don't have to read them to know I have them and to know they're special. They make sense only to me and to the person who wrote them. That's all a personal letter has to do.

I don't know how we'll treat personal letters in the digital future, but it'd be nice if personal letters only cost a 10-cent stamp. I doubt the post office would go for that. I doubt we'd write more personal letters if they did. Funny how we say we have no time to write a letter, but I'll bet the next time you get one, you'll drop everything to take the time to read it.

Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Reach him at brucemaiman@gmail.com.

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