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December 28, 2012

Journal Pages: The evolution of our words

“Were you responsible for planting those glorious, sturdy white Montauk daisies along the roadside to Rockport?”

I inquired that of a friend one sunny autumn day, already guessing the answer.

After a brief exchange of what would and would not grow well along Nugent Stretch (he believed the culprit responsible for the “would nots” was winter road salt melting into the early springtime ground, and I concurred), I said that I had written him a note of appreciation several days prior, addressed the envelope, and promptly misplaced it while foraging for a postage stamp to send it on its way.

“Well, when you find it, send it anyway, would you? I like to hold onto my letters and notes.” This is a sentiment I have always shared.

I had just finished reading an interesting essay by Kurt Andersen, in response to a new book, “Kurt Vonnegut: Letters,” a collection assembled and edited by Dan Wakefield, in which Andersen discusses the implications of the distinct differences among letters, memoir, and biography.

The literary art form of personal letters written, “to friends, relatives, and colleagues,” are most often, he said, “crafted artifacts riddled with evasions and dissembling.” Memoir, on the other hand, appears in “retrospect for a mass of strangers, with self-protection and posterity in mind.” And different still is, “biography, chronicling (the writer’s) life in real time.”

Notes and handwritten letters — and OK, maybe to some extent, typed ones or those written on a computer and printed out — are fast becoming a scarce commodity. Their charm, and indeed what makes them timeless and so precious, is their one-on-one, writer-to-recipient, direction and personality. They are communications to be saved, savored, stored, re-read, their words never in danger of being obliterated in a fraction of a second by the “delete” key on a computer.

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