Letter-writing in the age of digital reproduction

Letter-writing in the age of digital reproduction

Over a number of blogs, I have been contemplating what is something of a surge in ordinary person-to-person letter-writing that been occurring over the period of the pandemic/lockdown in the UK, but encompassing people from elsewhere also writing ‘real‘ letters. Apart from receiving more of these than I have done for the last 20 years, my other main sources of evidence are the trusty local postman, who reports that something similar is happening across the very large postal depot he works from, and articles that have appeared in both print journalism and online. In last week’s blog I considered why this might be so. Today‘s blog provides a PS to this.

In recent days I have been staring and staring, and staring, and yet more staring, at a letter received from a friend, which try as I may I have been unable to make full sense of. I can read some words and some sentences but not others, I’ve tried reading it aloud, I’ve asked the person I’m in lockdown with to read it – but with the same result. The handwriting is so distinctive! It’s so distinctively difficult to read as well. It thereby conveys how unique it is, because it is so utterly specific to the person who wrote it, to the way that they wrote it, and the ensuing struggles I engage in, in order to read what was sent with friendship and love.

If it had been an email, or a letter typed on a computer and printed out on paper with a ubiquitous font, it would have been read in a few minutes, and lurking at the back of my mind would have been a faint wondering feeling that something almost exactly the same might have been sent to someone else. In the age of mechanical reproduction and its successor the age of digital reproduction, this is not only possible but frequent. A letter to Polly and Peter? Write the one to Polly, copy and paste it and change the name.

But there is no fear of this with the letter I received and its distinctive handwriting. It is for me and for me alone. And if something similar was written to someone else, it would have required a separate process to write it, rather than the same process copied. Yes, a handwritten letter can defy the reproducibility of mechanical and digital production.

Last updated: 29 May 2020