Cloud Atlas and the Dying Art of Letter-Writing

I guess you could call me a nostalgic person.

In my more wistful moods, I will often imagine myself living in another era, a time before Facebook and Kindles and reality television. I tend to enjoy literature that indulges my sense of nostalgia—I devoured the Great Gatsby, which transported me into the glamorous world of the sparkling 1920s; I was enchanted by Pride and Prejudice, which whisked me away to the dreamy gardens and elegant parlors of Jane Austen’s England. Similarly, reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, I was ushered into several magical interlocking worlds, each as enchanting as the next.

Of all the various narratives Mitchell links together, the section “Letters from Zedelghem” resonated with me most of all, primarily because it appealed to my sense of nostalgia. This section is written in epistolary form, or as a series of letters. Frobisher’s beautifully-written, deeply personal letters made me reflect on the dying art of letter-writing. In today’s digital age, letters have fallen to the wayside, rendered obsolete by more “efficient” modes of communication such as email or text message. The nostalgic side of me finds the death of snail mail to be tragic. There is something so deeply personal about receiving a handwritten letter—the anticipation of carefully opening the envelope, the barely-perceptible creases and stains on the page, the unique flourishes of the writer’s script. Letters are at once vulnerable, intimate, and personal. Reading a letter from a loved one, you can almost imagine that person hunched over their desk, pen scratching onto paper, a mug of steaming coffee beside them.

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For centuries, before the dawn of the telephone or the advent of the Internet, letter writing was the primary form of communication. Sifting through archives of the past, letters serve as crucial documents of various historical moments. During World War I, for example, homesick soldiers kept love notes from their sweethearts tucked in their pockets, the letters creased at the edges from being repeatedly held. In the late 19th century, pioneers traveling to the great American West sent meticulous letters to their friends and family back home, chronicling their myriad woes and hardships. I even have a collection of letters stowed away in my closet, remnants from my time as a little girl at summer camp. I remember how I used to love receiving letters from home; simply seeing my mother’s familiar handwriting was comforting, made her feel closer to her, somehow.

Letters communicate a richness of emotion and thought that simply cannot be captured in an email or text message. In contrast to handwritten letters, text messages are curt and impersonal, often using shorthand language or abbreviations—“LOL,” “omg!, and so forth. Of course, there’s no denying that text messages are fantastically convenient—they are delivered in mere seconds, without the hassle of paying for postage or the time commitment of having to pick up the phone and engage in obligatory small talk.

Perhaps I’m merely being idealistic. Perhaps, I am stubbornly clinging to an outdated tradition that will inevitably crumble in the face of technology. Either way, I think it would be a travesty if handwritten letters were someday completely wiped out by technology. As Mitchell’s “Letters from Zedelghem” demonstrates, there is a beauty and power in old-fashioned snail mail, a depth of emotion and intimacy that no text message or email could ever capture.

—Anna D.

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~ by ardickens on March 1, 2012.

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