Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Words on Paper

I love going to the dump. Excuse me, to the recycling center. The weekly ritual could be a drag, but the drudgery is relieved by checking out the “still good” area, which includes a (recycled) bookcase.  True, most of the books are forgettable (Windows 97 for Dummies), but every once in a while I come home with a treasure.
Last week I scored the first five Harry Potters, in hardcover with the jackets intact. Not that I’m a huge fan, but I’ve only read the first two. But the real treasure slipped out when I shook out something used as a bookmark. It was a letter. In an envelope, with a stamp and a postmark from 2002. A personal letter, handwritten by one person to another. Of course I read it.  
As literature, it did not impress me. It wasn’t meant to, being just a note to express regret that the writer missed seeing the recipient, and proposing a future meeting. Still, the strong, clear penmanship, so very personal, and the firm thick paper made me feel a connection to the writer and recipient. Someone’s hand held formed the letters, folded the paper. Someone breathed on it, tucked it into the envelope, licked the flap. Another someone slit it open, eagerly or ineptly, judging by the ragged tear. I imagined a smile of pleasure and anticipation. Perhaps the letter was the beginning of a romance, the cementing of a friendship, or the renewal of family ties.
In any event, the letter moved me as mere email or text message couldn’t. Oh, I use modern communication and I’m grateful for it. But that simple letter was so personal. It took effort, it took time. It is tangible, and it will last far longer than the flickering script on a screen. Maybe what we’ve gained in speed and accessibility we’ve lost in intimacy and permanence.
Lest you think I’m an old fogey mourning the past, let me leave you with another image. PBS is airing a series on Shakespeare, starting with Macbeth. Ethan Hawke explores the tragedy from many angles, and is granted the opportunity to read from a first folio edition of the Bard’s collected plays. The 400-year-old book is placed on a low stand, and there is Hawke, almost in tears, on his knees before words on paper.