I suppose that most people who like to read keep books in their bathrooms. I know, I know, you’re not supposed to, but we all do it.
I’ve usually got three or four books sitting beside the ‘Throne’, and invariably, one of them is a book of letters by C.S. Lewis. I have the three volumes of Lewis’ collected letters, each one a big fat book, and I just leave one in the bathroom all the time, slowly working my way through it until I’m finished, when I replace it with the next one. After about two years, I start at the beginning again.
Lewis’ letters never fail to satisfy me, even after all these years of readings. There is literary criticism, offered up on an individual basis to friends or students; there is controversy with friends over theology or literary matters; there is ‘spiritual direction’, for want of a better term, offered to people who had read his books and had written for his advice; there are countless thank you letters to American admirers who sent him ‘care packages’ of food during the bad days of rationing during and immediately after the Second World War. Usually, Lewis wrote briefly, although there are long letters in the collections as well. Always, he wrote clearly and with what a friend of mine used to call ‘sanctified common sense’. Through his letters, Lewis has become one of my most reliable spiritual guides.
I am grateful, then, that these letters were preserved, written by hand (in later life, a very reluctant and arthritic hand) with an old fashioned nib pen, dipped manually into a bottle of ink in the old way. They have been painstakingly collected from many different sources and edited and compiled by Walter Hooper.
But where will future generations of such letters be found? Who actually sits down and writes a letter nowadays – I mean ‘writes’, with a pen, on real paper, and then seals it in an envelope and sends it through the mail? Who even bothers to type up a letter to send by mail? The vast majority of us just send an email. And I know what they say, that in cyberspace things last forever, but I don’t think that’s the case. I regularly clean out my inbox and delete emails I don’t need to keep. If I had been one of Lewis’ correspondents, would I have kept every email he sent me, right from the beginning? Probably not.
Well, like it or not, we can’t turn the clock back. But reflecting on this has made me wonder whether it would not be good for my soul to get the old pen and paper out from time to time and write a good old fashioned letter, one you have to put in an envelope and buy a stamp for. I have a fountain pen and I like to write with it (not a dip pen like Lewis used, but an ink pen nonetheless, that you can change the cartridges in, or even install a reservoir and fill from an ink bottle). And I remember a few years ago, when a good friend of mine died, and another very good friend wrote me a letter of sympathy; she took out pen and paper and wrote me an old fashioned letter, beginning with the line, ‘This subject somehow seemed too important for something as trivial as an email’.
I’m also wondering about the phone. My Dad and Mum are elderly and my Mum barely has time to keep up with emails; I find myself picking up the phone now and calling her almost every day. My brother, and a couple of my other old friends, stare at emails all day long at work and don’t like sitting down at a computer again when they get home. One of my new year’s resolutions is going to be to pick up the phone more and have more conversations with those I love who are far away from me, using the old fashioned methods.
Email is a wonderful tool and I enjoy the simplicity and the immediacy of it, but some people are slipping through the cracks, and some good things are being lost. Time to think about how to address that problem.