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Mail Dominance

By Liam T. A. ford

MAY. Time to pull a few last caffeine-filled all-nighters and squeak through a few final exams. Or, if you're graduating, time to gather frantically a few precious addresses of those fellow sufferers you've spent the most time with. Maybe you'll get in touch with them when you cruise through their hometown.

June. Time to head for home, or maybe that coveted summer internship in New York or the Peace Corps in Somalia.

July. You get a letter from your best friend, who graduated in May. Time to think about writing to her.

August. Damn. Time to think about writing that letter.

September. "Wow. Two months and I still haven't sent her a letter..."

YOU GET the idea. Harvard may teach you a lot about socializing--well, some would claim that only happens in final clubs--but it's still a reflection of modern society. And in modern society, thoroughly updated, hip people don't write letters.

Oh, maybe they'll phone once in a while. Even America's most culturally dominant medium, television, encourages us to "Phone First" and "Reach Out and Touch Someone." But when was the last time you saw an ad encouraging you to "Keep In Touch: Nothing Lasts Like a Letter"?

Phone Your Mother! Phone Your Grandfather! But don't worry about writing. The Postal Service doesn't need your money. They do just fine, thanks, subsisting on junk mail from J.C. Penney and subscriptions to Vogue.

Letter-writing used to be an art form. From Roman times to the late 1800s (when that upstart Bell ruined every-thing) every literate person kept up some sort of correspondence. St. Catherine of Siena wrote to the pope, telling him not to be such a wimp. Gibbon wrote to the poet Pope telling him his poems didn't scan. Columbus wrote to every member of the royalty in Europe, begging for money.

Yes, those were the days of volumnious letter-writers. Virginia Woolf wrote six volumes full of letters. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote so many letters advising friends to visit America before they missed the ill-fated boat of democracy that 130 years after his death, they haven't all been published yet.

But who writes letters today? When I first came to Harvard I and most of my dormmates were thrilled to get our own mailboxes. After five months of writing to high school friends who only wrote back after three months and five phone calls, the novelty wore off. What's so great about having a mailbox if all one gets are overdue notices from the Theological Library?

NOW THAT MOST of my friends are graduating, I'm hoping they do better than my high school acquaintances. With a few exceptions, though, I have little confidence in them. If past summers' correspondence records are any indication, I might hear from Thomas once or twice a year--though he might send lots of e-mail--Paul every few months and Marwan--well, Marwan will call, and maybe I'll get up to Montreal now and then.

But a phone call is no substitute for a letter. AT&T may be onto something when it asks us to reach out and touch, but unlike letters, phone calls are emphemeral. You hear what's going on in someone's life, but 10 years later, your friend has disappeared from your life and you have nothing to remember her by.

Decades later, a letter can make you laugh or weep all over again. But a phone call? It's nothing but a few hundred million electrons, shot through a wire and then dissolved into a sea of disorganized memory. A letter lasts. You can read it thousands of time, savoring the prose.

But if you never write, no one will ever be able to savor their friendship with you in quite that way. No one will ever be able to say "why, I remember what Tom was doing that year. Hungary, wan't it? I'm not sure, I'll check his letters." No one will read your letters in 2091 and say, "So that's what great-grandpa Corny was doing in 1991. How weird. It's amazing how things have changed."

So before you leave Harvard for the Real World or even just for the Great Internship In D.C., get a few addresses, buy some stationery at Bob Slate's. If you're really ambitious, get a modem for your Mac and find out about electronic mail (it's cheaper than regular mail in the long run--and faster, too).

And keep in touch. It's worth it.

Liam T. A. Ford '91-'92 thinks the USPS should be privatized.

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