Sunday, April 25, 2010

Letters Aren’t Dead Yet (Nor Are Books)

Sunday night, I find myself catching up on things and getting to the final few items on the weekend’s to-do list. This time, the list includes writing cards—two “welcome baby” cards (for a pair of friends who’ve had their second child and for a pair of friends who just had twins) and also a card for a friend whose mammogram turned up positive for early stage breast cancer. I don’t see any of these friends too often anymore, but when you hear about something like this—cancer or babies being born—you send a card. At least, that’s the way I was raised.

My grandmother was a committed card-sender. She bought birthday cards months in advance, wrote dates on the upper right corner of the envelopes (where the stamp would later cover up the numbers), and kept them organized chronologically in a box. She sent cards to all her friend’s children and grandchildren, no matter how physically distant they’d become. I haven’t been nearly as vigilant with birthday cards as she was, but I did get the gist of her example: that, as much as possible, it’s important to keep in touch.

Incidentally, Gram also taught me to send thank-you notes by threatening that if I didn’t send thank-you notes for birthday or Christmas gifts, she’d tell the person not to give me anything the next year. That was a high-stakes lesson for a kid, so if you ever give me anything, you’re sure to get a card in the mail if I have your address or can find it on

This weekend I stopped by the Independent Journal & Book Fair at UMass, Amherst, which was put on by the MFA program there. It was great to be in a room full of people who believe not only in texts but also in books and literary journals as art objects made with care.

A book is more than the text it contains—it is an object, it has a presence and a body. The space it occupies on a shelf or the weight it adds to your bag gives it significance. Also, books can stimulate 80% of the five senses (100% if you snack on them, but I never have). I’m not saying I wouldn’t use an e-reader if someone gave me one; they have their practicalities and I’m not a purist when it comes to technology. As author and editor Gian Lombardo wrote in his blog, "I guess I’m bi in this case." But even if I needed or chose to go digital with most of my books, I’m sure I’d still keep my favorite books in physical form.

I send plenty of emails for all sorts of occasions and I read lots of things online—but I do like to hold the things I care about. Similarly, life’s major events still call for the time and care of putting pen to paper and stamp to envelope. Thanks for the lesson, Gram. Your Mother’s Day card will be in the mail soon.

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