Lamenting the decline of proper correspondence, and recalling its greatness.

''My letters are my society,'' the poet Donald Hall said in a Paris Review interview. ''Letters are my cafe, my club, my city.''

In his memoir : ''A Question of Freedom,'' the poet Reginald Dwayne Betts wrote that, in prison, letters were called ''Kites'' because they flew up and out.

What made a letter good? ''Letters should aspire to the condition of talk,'' Iris Murdoch wrote in one of her own. ''Say first thing that comes into head.'' This is harder to do in emails, which are less private. On cream-laid paper there is no ''forward'' button.

Before the telephone wounded them and e-mail administered the death blow, handwriiten letters were useful : They let you know who the crazies were.

A lunatic's barbed wire script would lurch in circles across the page, like a fly with a missing wing. No longer. On Twitter and Gmail and Facebook elsewhere, the justified left- and- right hand margins can temper a lot of brewing delirium.

That's one reason I miss correspondence. A more essential reason is that, perhaps like you during these months under quarantine, I've rarely felt so isolated.

I speak with my family and friends on the phone, but my heart is only two-thirds in it; I'm not a telephone person. I dislike Zoom even more. Is that really my walleyed gaze in the ''Hollywood Squares'' box in my laptop.

Last fall, I moved out of New York City, for a year, to work on a book. The person I now see most often, besides my wife, is our cheerful and fiercely sun-tanned postal carrier, out on her rounds. I found her appearance on our side porch oddly moving.

They're a sign of normality, proof that the government is still clicking on some of its old tracks. The Postal Service has come to mean more to many people during lockdown, and it's incredible that the president wants to smash it.

Each day when the mail carrier arrives, I find myself longing for a surprise letter - a big, juicy one, in the way that, in the wonderful comedy ''Bowfinger'', Steve Martin's character longs for the delivery of FedEx package [any FedEx package] to prove he is somebody. I do trade big. juicy emails with some people in my life -

But receiving them isn't quite the same as slitting open a letter, taking it to big chair and sitting in for the 20 minutes it takes to devour it.

If it's been a long time since I've received a proper letter, i do visit them in captivity. Books of letters are among my favorite sort of books, and during quarantine I've consumed my share.

The best recent one is, without doubt, Ralph Ellison's. His letters mix literary and social concerns with a real sense of a lived life - of food and sex and airplanes and dogs and missed trains. He really fills up his rucksack.

It's hard to read letters, as good as Ellison's without considering how unlikely it is that we'll ever get a similar book from Colson Whitehead or Hilary Mantel or Jesmyn Ward or Martin Baron or Samantha Power or Chris Ware or Dave Chappelle or Gabrielle Hamilton.

There will be no [or vanishingly few] books of collected emails, and who would want them? The age of proper correspondence has ended, and there's been no pan-ecumenical service to mourn its passing.

The Honor and Serving of brilliant writings, continues. The World Students Society thanks author  Dwight Garner.


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