catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 3 :: 2011.02.11 — 2011.02.24


Writing to remember

I hold this letter in my hand
A plea, a petition, a kind of prayer
I hope it does as I have planned

Nick Cave, from “Love Letter”

Like Christians’ complicated relationship with sex is book lovers’ complicated relationship with e-reader technology.  Witness the unprecedented three-article feature in this issue, each piece dealing with complex feelings of guilt, fidelity and pleasure when it comes to Kindles and the like.

To borrow aslant a phrase from Gregory Wolfe, I’m a conscientious objector in the Kindle wars, but I do recognize that, for all of us, there’s so much more at stake in the debate than simply a concern for what we’d do with all of our book-holding furniture if everything goes electronic. Wolfe, editor of the print, full-color IMAGE Journal, reflects in his essay “And the Pixel Was Made Flesh:”

If we lose the mental, emotional, and imaginative discipline of reading, shorten our attention spans even further, fill our minds with trivia, and become adept at manipulating surface images, how prepared will our hearts be to recognize the quiet intimacies of grace?  Words are certainly not immutable, but they have more stability than pixels, those infinitely shifting points of light.

The shift away from that which can be touched, smelled, operated without batteries or power cords stands to shift the boundaries not only of what we know, but what we even perceive as knowable.  As Wolfe understands, it’s not just his editor’s paycheck that’s at risk, but his and his children’s and his grandchildren’s ability to know grace, and therefore to sense the ways of God.

In addition to the ways in which learning to read books can help us cultivate faculties for the Big Things of human experience, the written word has served for centuries as the medium of memory.  Many generations before the printing press was invented for mass production, humans were putting down their stories on whatever surface would take the symbols of language.  I admit I feel a sense of anxiety growing in my chest when I think about all that is not being captured for future generations these days due to the proliferation of virtual communication and storage.  I don’t think we’ll lose the book as object any time soon (exhibit A: someone saw an ironic profit opportunity in a print version of Damn You, Autocorrect!).  But I am seeing from my own experience how, within a single generation, we’ve almost entirely lost another form of words on a page: the letter.

I’ve always had a wistful nostalgia about handwritten notes, but I never realized how deeply the loss of that tradition could be felt until this past December.  As a way of marking ten years of marriage (and just over sixteen years of general being-togetherness), my husband and I pulled out our box of notes to each other, going all the way back to 1994, when we were just fifteen years old.  We sat in front of the fireplace in the room where we had spent our honeymoon in 2001 and dove headfirst into the past.  I’m not sure what I expected to encounter in that collection, but it certainly wasn’t what I found.  What I found was a version of ourselves I barely recognized, at turns passionate, self-centered, melodramatic, funny, committed, fickle, despairing, insightful and annoying.  I had forgotten about issues that, in high school, threatened to undermine our whole relationship.  I had forgotten how tenaciously we loved each other back then — not more so than now, just differently.

As I watch my husband’s nieces live out their first loves in the realms of texting and Facebook, I’m sorry for what they’re losing, even if part what they lose is an uncomfortable window into the past and the memory of a self who looks quite embarrassing from the future.  It stuns me to think that, barring an occurrence like peak oil and taking into account cultural and technological differences across the globe, my husband and I are part of one of the last generations in the West who will have such a record of our relationship and development as ordinary human beings.  Even our notes and letters trickled off in our college years as e-mail took over our communications, from the precious to the ordinary.  And our nieces won’t even have e-mails tucked away in a folder on a hard drive somewhere, only passionate texts that drop off the edge of their phones’ max capacities and Facebook messages that legally belong to Mark Zuckerberg and his gang of shareholders.

Akin to Wolfe’s reasons for lamenting the decline of reading, the loss of love letters and other handwritten notes is about more than just losing the artifacts of one particular relationship in the history of the gazillions since the beginning of time.  It’s about losing one point of triangulation in our understanding of ourselves and our relationship to the world.  Perhaps one of the big paradoxes here is that the semi-permanent word of ink on paper has the power to convict us of the relentlessness of change.  Who I am today is much different than who I was and who I am becoming.  And if I can change so radically, my friends can, too — and my family and my church and my neighborhood and my country, and we can all change for better or for worse.  If I don’t believe it is so, I open myself up to crippling despair on the one hand, and deadly pride on the other.  And if I don’t have the memory of the past, there is no light for the path ahead, just a dangerously near-sighted present.

Wolfe wonders if losing the discipline of reading will inhibit our ability to know the subtle ways of grace. Might also the writing and reading of handwritten letters be practiced as a spiritual discipline?  God’s love letter to us is expressed in the incarnate Word, a blood-and-flesh mystery that can be opened and read over and over without ever reaching the end of our understanding.  Our loss of letter-writing will not diminish this Word, but setting the small mystery of ourselves and our human relationships down on paper might just be good practice for our own capacity to see meaning in and beyond the infinitely shifting point of the present.

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