What We Lose by Not Writing Letters

Photo © Shutterstock

Editor's Note:

Dan Fesperman’s travels as a journalist and novelist have taken him to thirty countries and three war zones. Lie in the Dark won the Crime Writers’ Association of Britain’s John Creasey Memorial Dagger Award for best first crime novel, The Small Boat of Great Sorrows won their Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award for best thriller, and The Prisoner of Guantánamo won the Dashiell Hammett Award from the International Association of Crime Writers. His latest novel, The Letter Writer, is now available. Visit Dan’s website at

Up in the attic, in the very back of a file drawer in my office, there is a crumpled brown folder bulging with nearly fifty letters I have received over the years. The oldest dates to 1976. The newest is from 2012. Each has a certain evocative smell. The paper ranges from crinkly onionskin to luxurious stationery. Most are handwritten, some are typed.

Whenever I read them, a gallery of old friends, lovers, colleagues, and professors comes to life. They call out in joy, pain, humor, confusion, and solidarity. For some, now dead, the letters are all that remains.

There has always been something mysterious about the power of old letters to transport us, but when I read them nowadays a new reaction accompanies the usual waves of nostalgia and longing. I am struck forcefully by the sense that I am handling the remnants of a dying form of communication.

It is a painful thought.

One thing I already miss is their durability. Yes, letters may be misplaced, or burned in a fire. But they are not automatically purged by mail software within weeks or even days of their creation. Their words and messages never seem quite as hurried or fleeting as those phrases that pop up on chat screens. Their syntax often rolls along for several pages without a single emoji or LOL. And we are poorer for their increasing rarity. Because if eyes are the windows of the soul, then letters may well be the soul’s roadmaps – often undermarked, granted, and sometimes in error, but maps all the same.

Such thoughts came to mind in the wake of finishing my newest book, The Letter Writer. Set in Manhattan in 1942, shortly after America’s entry into World War II, one of the book’s main characters is an older fellow named Danziger, who makes a modest living by reading and writing letters in four different languages for a mostly illiterate, mostly immigrant clientele on the Lower East Side.

Danziger’s role makes him a repository not only for his clients’ memories, but also for some of their deepest secrets. The hundreds of cubbyholes in his office are both an archive and a cemetery, a compendium of vanishing voices from the Old World, a vast array of personalities that have fallen under the shadow of war.

Spending so much time in Danziger’s company reminded me of the power of letters, which in turn sent me rummaging through that attic file drawer for the first time in years. It also made me gaze out in dismay across the plain of written communications as they exist today. Chat. Text. Email, if we’re lucky. Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, Snapchat. The very names suggest their transitory nature, and with each new outlet words give way to images.

My son, a recent college graduate, now lives in Spain. He is an expansive thinker and a fine writer, and his mother and I both write for a living. Yet, our communications back and forth across the Atlantic consist mostly of chat and email. Understandable, I suppose, because who wants to wait for a letter to cross the ocean, subject to the failings of two national postal services? Yet, it pains me to think that years from now all that will remain from this period is some photographs stored in the Cloud, and maybe a few archived emails. Would it really be all that difficult to set aside enough time to revive the letter, at least for those who mean the most to us?

I offer a modest proposal, then, as a gift to ourselves and to our loved ones for posterity. How about if we try to write at least one letter per year to the people in faraway places who we’re closest to. Write it on a birthday, perhaps, or on some other annual occasion. One tangible vessel for each person in each year containing our thoughts and emotions as they exist at that moment, offered as a small roadmap to a corner of our soul, a map that the recipient can examine now and for years to come. If those recipients return the favor, all the better.

Because, as Danziger said, in scanning the cubbyholes filled with his clients’ mail, the contents were more than mere letters. “What you see are lives.” As a writer of the letters that kept those correspondences alive, he came to see his own role as “a trust, an obligation, to all those who are vanishing from our midst.”