For the love of letters

  • Article by: PAMELA HUEY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 5, 2007 - 5:32 PM

The old-fashioned letter took a hit with the advent of e-mail, but there is a passionate group devoted to writing and receiving personal snail mail.

'Letters, we get letters, we get stacks and stacks of letters," crooner Perry Como used to sing.

Except today, most of us don't get stacks and stacks of letters. Some us don't get any letters at all. Instead, we get piles and piles of e-mails.

E-mailing and text messaging may be quicker and more efficient but there are still people writing letters, addressing and licking envelopes, and dropping them in the mailbox.

"There is nothing to compare to a letter on paper. Nothing, nothing, nothing," said Wendy Russ, an Arkansas woman who maintains a website called "Letters, Letter-writing and Other Intimate Discourse."

For thousands of years, people have communicated by writing letters: love letters, family letters, thank-you letters, business letters, Dear John letters. Some of history's most famous letters are found in the Bible, written by the Apostle Paul.

Keeping the letter alive

Like Russ, two Twin Cities residents are trying to keep the age-old art alive. Gary Marvin and Lonna Riedinger of North Oaks write letters because they savor the joy of finding a missive in their mailbox, and they appreciate good writing.

Through an endeavor called "The Letter Exchange," the two connect letter writers nationwide and overseas. In 2003, they took over the project from a California man who had started it in 1982.

Three times a year, Marvin and Riedinger send a pamphlet to a mailing list of about 400. In all, they've sent issues to about 1,135 people.

"The Letter Exchange" contains listings in categories from "Art" to "Writing," from people looking for pen pals.

• "Retired fireman rides bicycle 7 miles to post office. More fun if there is something in the box."

• "Don't let e-mail take over. Postcards, funny greeting cards, stationery. Send your grocery list!"

• "I need letters! Any kind of letter. Whimsical whimsy or soul searching thoughts. Just gotta have letters!"

Marvin and Riedinger were enthusiastic Letter Exchange participants -- "Lexers," as they call themselves -- before they took on the job as editors.

"We're both pretty introverted in terms of personality. And so it provides a way of meeting people. It's less stressful than going to parties or going to bars," he said.

"It's also more thoughtful. Because a letter comes in, and you think about a way to respond and eventually get something down on paper but by that time, you've done a lot of thinking."

Marvin has been writing to Lex pen pals since 1986. At one point, he estimates he was writing to nearly 75 people. "But a lot of those were postcards, which, of course, goes a lot faster."

Riedinger didn't start writing Lex letters until the late '90s. Now, at any given time, she corresponds with 15 to 20 people, sending mostly handwritten letters.

"You can curl up in a chair, and there's a sort of peacefulness about it when you're not using technology except a pen," said Riedinger, who keeps packets of the letters she receives tied with fancy ribbons and stored in a basket.

The two caution that "Lex" is intended only for the exchange of correspondence, and it's not a place for singles to meet. But occasionally people do meet through the letters and very rarely, Lex pen pals fall in love and get married.

One thing is clear. Lexers are passionate about letters.

"Yes, a lot has been lost of our culture today," Ron Michaelson wrote to the Letter Exchange newsletter.

"The small family farm is gone, the intact family is nearly gone, and parents can't even discipline their own kids anymore. But we can, at least, write letters. ... We write letters not from necessity, but out of a love of writing with ink and paper."

Soldiers still like letters

Postal carrier John Prochazka of Brooklyn Park, who has been delivering mail in the Twin Cities since 1979, said he's seen the number of letters dwindle over the years. People still send postcards and greeting cards -- particularly at Christmas and Mother's Day -- but they're not writing letters like they used to.

"Bulk-rate mail is the bulk of our business," he said recently as he delivered mail on his Edina route.

However, one kind of letter prevails -- the letter from soldiers. Prochazka sees a lot of mail to and from Iraq.

"They [soldiers] get e-mails all the time, but nothing beats a personal letter," he said.

Author Beryl Singleton Bissell, who writes a monthly column for the Cook County News Herald on Minnesota's North Shore, is a big fan of letters -- with a caveat. She has merged the traditional style with the new technology, sending her letters via e-mail.

"I know that is not considered a letter," she said in a recent phone interview. "But they are letters; I write 'Dear so and so.'"

The e-mail debate

While snail mail clearly has passionate advocates (probably most of them over 35), e-mail has become an integral part of the lives of just about anyone with a computer.

(To the dismay of some Lexers, other Lexers want responses by e-mail.)

Gil Rodman, an associate professor of communications at the University of Minnesota, is an e-mail convert. Electronic mail and instant messaging has allowed more people to routinely communicate through the written word than ever before.

"Before I first went online in 1994, I used to be a big letter writer myself," he wrote (in an e-mail). "But I certainly never produced (and probably couldn't have, even if I wanted to) the same volume of correspondence by hand in those days that I produce in e-mail form on a daily basis today."

Rodman also points out that handwritten or typewritten letters on paper are fragile and can easily be destroyed in a fire or basement flood.

Conversely, Gary Marvin worries about the safety of computers to keep information for posterity.

"You think you're keeping it all on your hard drive and the hard drive crashes, or you're putting a new version of Windows on and you can't find your files," he said.

Pamela Huey • 612-673-7044

  • SOME PITHY THOUGHTS ON THE LETTER

    "A letter is a joy of Earth -- It is denied the Gods."

    Emily Dickinson

    • • •

    "Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude with good company."

    Lord Byron

    • • •

    "A pleasant letter I hold to be the pleasantest thing that this world has to give."

    Anthony Trollope

    • • •

    "In a letter to a friend, the thought is often unimportant, and the feeling, if it be only a desire to entertain him, everything."

    Sir Walter Raleigh

    • • •

    "Letters are above all useful as a means of expressing the ideal self."

    Elizabeth Hardwick

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