Men of letters

Lamentable changes in communication

The Library of Congress announced on Dec. 26, 2017, that it had received a copy of every public tweet ever posted, and that it will archive all future tweets. The goal of this endeavor is to “acquire and preserve a record of knowledge and creativity for Congress and the American people,” but one should remain skeptical that it will accomplish either of those things.

This announcement was a long time coming. The project of archiving tweets was first announced in April of 2010.

“Have you ever sent out a ‘tweet’ on the popular Twitter social media service?” the Library wrote in its press release. “Congratulations: Your 140 characters or less will now be housed in the Library of Congress.” But for an increasing number of people, these tweets do not represent their best moments.

An example of this was highlighted in a recent New York Times op-ed entitled “Social Media is Making Us Dumber” on Jan. 11, 2018. In this article, Jesse Singal unpacked how selective editing and tweeting allowed a small group to convince several hundred others and a few news outlets that Harvard Professor of Psychology, Steven Pinker, was a neo-Nazi.

“The idea that Mr. Pinker, a liberal, Jewish psychology professor, is a fan of a racist, anti-Semitic online movement is absurd on its face,” writes Singal, who blames these increasingly common events on “the pernicious social dynamics of these online spaces” that breed bad-faith, slandering and outrage.

Singal is right to observe that these platforms do not merely reveal the worst we have to offer but contribute to how bad we can be. Many on Twitter have fallen prey to posting before thinking. Its immediacy makes a user prone to share his first thoughts on a topic, which are always less articulate and often more emotive than his best.

While Twitter and similar social media engines have their virtues, one is right to suggest they have incentivized short and provocative communication aimed at “likes” and “favorites” above more thoughtful discussion.

This development in communication habits is lamentable. Writing to others was once not only the way people communicated with each other, but also a form of de facto literature. One need only look to the past to uncover the potential of written communication.

St. Paul’s letters are likely the most widely read documents in the Western world. These letters to congregations across the Mediterranean world not only sustained and grew the early formation of Christianity, but to this day remain a vital source of fascination and inspiration to countless people around the world.

Upon these letters, churches were built and societies organized. But the value of letters comes not only in the laying down of “doctrine.” It is also one of the best ways to get to know someone intimately.

Petrarch’s deeply personal epistle recounting his ascent of Mount Ventoux reminds all who read it that they may not know exactly what it is they are looking for.

After describing his arduous ascent of the mountain with his brother, the climax of the letter comes when Petrarch tells of how he randomly opened his copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions on the summit, and read, “And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.”

Embarrassed, Petrarch writes, “I was satisfied that I had seen enough of the mountain; I turned my inward eye upon myself, and from that time not a syllable fell from my lips until we reached the bottom again. Those words had given me occupation enough.”

This serves as a reminder that contentment can come from within, and is often within reach.

For a lighter encounter, one can look to the correspondence of Niccolo Machiavelli. Today, Machiavelli is often understood to be a slimy, conniving, ruthless theorist responsible for the often quoted “it is better to be feared than loved,” but if one looks to his letters, they get a different portrait of the man.

In a private letter to Luigi Guicciardini, one can read about how Machiavelli was tricked by an old woman into sleeping with a prostitute in a dimly lit room while in Lombardy. After he finished and payed her, he lit a candle and was shocked at what he saw.

“My God! The woman was so ugly that I almost dropped dead,” he wrote. His description of her is vivid. “The top of her head was bald, which allowed you to observe a number of lice taking a stroll,” one eye was bigger than the other, and “her tear ducts were full of mucus and her eyelashes plucked.”

He concludes by writing “I don’t believe my lust will ever return,” and one can imagine the fun he had in writing it, and the joy with which his friends read it. When we look to such a letter, we can recover some of who he was, and get a taste of the sort of theatrical imagination he had.

For the more romantically inclined, one may look to Union Soldier Sullivan Ballou’s letter to his wife, Sarah.

“Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more,” he wrote to her on July 14, 1861. He and his fellow soldiers were preparing to move from Camp Clark, and he anticipated something ominous.

“Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield,” he wrote.

He died a week after writing the letter. Although he never mailed the letter, perhaps he took solace in knowing she would find it when they recovered his personal belongings.

“But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights … always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath,” he finished the letter.

“Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.”

Thomas Jefferson’s letters are a fountain of inspiration, and serve as the source of much of what one now knows about his political beliefs. His final letter was written on June 24, 1826, to Roger Weightman. In this letter, Jefferson was declining an invitation to celebrate the Independence Day, due to his poor health.

“May [July 4th] be to the world, what I believe it will be, the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves,” he wrote. “These are the grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollection of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”

He passed away on that July 4, but had the last word. It still reads as if he is speaking directly to us.

It is with that same eye toward eternity all should strive for when writing words down for others, no matter the format or interface. Giving a slight thought to the future and the possibility that others will see what we have laid down in letters, helps one hopefully put a more thoughtful foot forward. After all, someone might read it.