There is a ritual to letter-writing—and letter-reading, too—that feels sacred. Illustration: Hannah Berry

How lockdown revived the handwritten letter

Facing the loneliness of lockdown and endless deluge of bad news from our screens, legions of Britons are reassessing what the letter can do
March 4, 2021

While you won’t find any majestically old books on my shelves, personal treasures do occasionally materialise, like the notecard that swooped from a slim hardback the other evening. It was embossed with its sender’s name—just as well, since who among us can identify even our closest confidantes by penmanship alone in the age of the instant message?

This six-line missive must have been sitting there for years. It was a rare material reminder of a heady romance that mellowed into precious friendship and, three lockdowns later, feels a lifetime ago. Yes, I’ve texts aplenty—emails, too—but were I to print them all off, their heft couldn’t match the tactile intimacy of pen and ink, nor its time-travelling, multisensory immediacy.

The letter has been having (yet another) renaissance. Never mind Snapchat—as Simon Garfield noted in his elegant 2013 homage, To the Letter—even the advent of the penny stamp in the 19th century was seen to threaten its integrity. Present-tense uncertainty quickens the appeal of the more authentic-seeming past. As the engines of industrialisation sped up, the arts and crafts movement was born; fast-forward to the 21st century, and looming ecological calamity gave us hipster homesteaders. Now comes Covid and resurgent letter writing. Last spring, the New Yorker’s Rachel Syme started a project to combat quarantine isolation, matching up 9,000 eager epistoliers with pen pals around the world. Closer to home, The Handwritten Letter Appreciation Society—an organisation whose soubriquet sounds like the title of a cheerful novel—is suddenly hot stuff, its membership growing by 64 per cent since last March. Legions of Britons who eye envelopes on the doormat with irritation or dread—they’re either junk mail or bills—are reassessing what the letter can do.

It’s worth noting that while the pickling-and-home-brewing crowd are rushing to embrace epistles, for a portion of the populace—and the divide here is largely generational—the letter has never ceased being a mode of communication. Plenty of our parents still exchange long, news-filled missives with friends, each an instalment in a conversation that may have been running for decades. Even I can remember a time when letters were something to look forward to. As a child, I had pen pals—a girl my age in Kenya, another in Japan. My university acceptance letter arrived by post, and even by my final year there, when we’d been issued with email addresses that seemed esoteric beyond our ken, staying in touch with family and friends back home meant either queuing for the phone or putting pen to paper.

We shouldn’t sentimentalise every note—American wit James Thurber responded to a schoolboy fan in 1958: “One of the things that discourage us writers is the fact that 90 per cent of you children write wholly, or partly, illiterate letters, carelessly typed.” All the same, there is a ritual to letter-writing—and letter-reading, too—that feels sacred. It demands that you make space in your day, just as you should when laying your thoughts out on the page. For recipients, the eye must settle into the quirks of a correspondent’s hand, a step towards reading with empathy and understanding, like leaning in to a dropped voice.

Ephemeral as it can often be, the aging paper of snail mail remains marked by coffee cups, lipstick, and tears. It’s passed through the hands of countless strangers to reach you yet remains entirely private, a reminder of a time when “sharing” was suggestive of one-to-one confidences, rather than social media’s bazillion-follower (over)share. And a letter won’t interrupt your communion with banners and beeps—take a look at the concentration on the face of Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window.

Archivists debate how the absence of letters will shape future history, but it affects our personal histories, too. Oh, there’ll be chat threads to trawl through—the emoji-studded “brain fart” text messages of our supposedly more emotionally engaged era. The physical isolation of lockdown has left many of us craving a more substantial connection with loved ones. Handwritten correspondence facilitates that, allowing us to reveal ourselves in a quiet, trusting space, crabby handwriting and all. Send a letter today and it may tumble from a book in years to come, capturing a vital taste of what it means to be alive and pining for a friend’s embrace in the year 2021. It may also mean you start greeting the arrival of the post with something other than grouchy apprehension.