A eulogy for the handwritten letter

Letter signed by Jean Calvin from the papers of Jean Hotman at the Library for the History of French Protestantism in Paris

Academics are supposed to love books. I don’t. Five years working as a librarian – as well as the experience of moving my 600-odd book collection across the world four times – have relieved me of any sentimentality I might harbour on that score.

By this I don’t mean that I have no interest in what books make possible – a conversation with a text. To that extent you’ll still find me haunting the dark reaches of Auckland’s second hand bookshops. But I do mean that if the words can be delivered more efficiently, and with less weight and dust, then I’ll gladly dump most of the books I’ve accumulated so far. I admit that a room full of books can look mighty picturesque, but there are other less cumbersome ways of decorating your environs.

This is why I’ve embraced the e-book revolution with a glad heart. The ease with which I can read and annotate books on my iPad increasingly makes reading a paper book a frustrating experience.

However, last week as I was wandering across campus, I saw a man standing in a patch of sunlight reading a handwritten letter, and I realised that my callousness towards books doesn’t extend to letters. The number of the letter’s days seems even more limited than that of the printed book, but I feel much sadder about the former’s passing.

When someone writes you a letter, their choice of stationery, their handwriting, and sometimes even the coffee stains they leave on the page tell you things (or feel as though they tell you things) that a printed book doesn’t. Even the fact that the letter’s writer has invested time and effort solely for you, conveys something that a book can’t. Sure, effort and choices have gone into the writing, typesetting, binding, etc. of a book, but the printed book doesn’t convey the sense of intimacy that accompanies the presentation of a handwritten letter.


One thing I have noticed about historians is that they are often gossips. Not necessarily malicious gossips, but still the kind of people who delight in the minutiae of other people’s lives. This is why, for my money, reading other people’s letters is one of the best things about being an historian. Your profession gives you licence to do something you couldn’t normally square with your conscience.

Of course, hand-writing a letter involves a kind of self-presentation (e.g. a post-it note left on the refridgerator vs. a thank-you letter to your grandmother) and to this degree the sense of intimacy we feel with the author may sometimes be illusory. But it’s the inadvertent things like the coffee cup stain or the worse-than-usual handwriting betraying the writer’s tiredness (or drunkenness?) that invests letters with a sense of immediacy that a book doesn’t possess.

This makes me think that there is perhaps one thing I will genuinely miss as the number of books dwindles: other people’s annotations and coffee stains. You can’t doodle in the margin of an e-book or drip grease on it (you can theoretically share your notes on an Amazon Kindle, but that feels plain clinical in comparison).

I will also miss the ability we have to write a dedication on the first pages of paper book. When most of my current book collection is at some second-hand bookshop being fingered by a sentimental bibliophile, the books that remain on my shelves at home will be those containing other people’s annotations or the handwritten dedications when they kindly gave the book to me.

Coffee Stained Reporter's Notebook

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