The Epistolary Dilemma

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I've been reading Philip Larkin's Letters to Monica, a book I coveted greatly, from reading the reviews.

I've been reading Philip Larkin's Letters to Monica, a book I coveted greatly, from reading the reviews. When the book arrived though, it seemed like a bit of a let-down. These letters are nothing like his careful, poised poems they are a welter of private references, anxieties, dreams and doodles.

But then again, I realised, I am not meant to be the reader of those letters, Philip and Monica are. And it's incredible that these two people expressed themselves so deeply to each other, for over 40 years. That's what long correspondences are a private, recursive and rich form, sustained over time.

We don't see much of that genre any more. Might this be the beginning of the end for that entire tradition of composed, leisurely, two-way communication? Anne Fadiman once wrote an essay about snail mail, and what a diminished thing an email is, in comparison with a funny riff on the epistolary novel, Clarissa had it been written through emails rather than letters. I am not sure whether to agree with her or not. Never having written or received that many real letters, I make no distinction based on the delivery format. They serve the same purpose, and email is as living an archive as any sheaf of crumbly ageing paper.

What do people in a long-distance relationship do now? They Skype or Facetime, talk about their day or their thoughts as they happen. Maybe they instant-message. Either way, the communication is spontaneous and off-hand. It's not about saving up things to tell, writing it with art and humour, waiting patiently for a response. Letters and emails are crucially about writing, rather than talking. They are artefacts to be read and re-read, not fleeting scrolls.

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