Our personal history: Here today, deleted tomorrow

My mother, now 92 years old, spends many of her days reading the letters sent her during World War II — love letters, I presume, since they’d only been married a few months when he headed to Europe. They are bundled and tied with ribbons, and when she finishes reading them, she starts at the beginning again.

I’ve never read any of them, although when he died several years ago, my siblings and I pored through a diary he kept in 1943. We didn’t recognize the guy writing it. Hopeless romanticism doesn’t always come though in the ways of fathers.

These letters, no doubt neatly tied in ribbons in the homes of millions of descendants of the Greatest Generation, are the only history we leave behind.

What will we leave behind from an era that nobody writes letters anymore?

Bloomberg’s Margaret Carlson considers the question today with the release of President Warren G. Harding’s steamy missives to his mistress this week. They provides, she says, a fine view of what has been lost with the decline of letter-writing.

No modern U.S. politician is likely to be as unguarded as Harding was in those letters. And that’s a shame. These relics of a bygone era give another dimension to the man, an opportunity lost to more recent leaders who could use another dimension or two.

Prick anyone, these letters tell us, and you’ll find a beating heart. Sadly in the age of Twitter, Instagram and congressional investigations, we won’t be reading about it 50 years hence.

Newsweek considered what history will lose when it focused on the loss of letter-writing a few years ago. The irony, it noted, is our loss of individual history comes at a time of information overflow.

There is e-mail, certainly, and texting, but this is communication that is for the most part here today and deleted tomorrow. And there is the enormous trove of information about daily life multiplying by the hour in the digital record—television, camera phones, spycams, YouTube and chat rooms all capture what seems like every second of every life on the planet. The problem is not that there is not enough information about what we think or how we live. The problem is sifting through that sea of data. The most common complaint of our time is that we are overwhelmed by information, unmediated and unstoppable.

Maybe we miss letters at least a little because we miss the world, the blessedly—to our eye at least—uncomplicated world where letters were commonplace by necessity. Surely, though, there is more to our fondness than mere sentimentality. When we read a letter, we develop an image of the letter writer unavailable to us in any other way. Abraham Lincoln’s speeches leave us in awe of the man. His letters make us like him, because we hear a more unburnished voice and more unbuttoned personality. Lincoln the letter writer was less shackled by thoughts of how history would read his words. He loosened the reins on his humor, his anger and his melancholy. He was, in a word, human. Moreover, his correspondence proves that the more one writes—and Lincoln wrote a lot—the more relaxed the writer becomes, the more at ease he or she is in the act of writing and the more able to fully express thought and emotion. Writing a lot of letters will not turn you into Lincoln or Shakespeare, but if you do it enough, you begin to put your essential self on paper whether you mean to or not. No other form of communication yet invented seems to encourage or support that revelatory intimacy.