Virginia Woolf’s Letters

Aside from her opening lament for the “loss of the written word” (really? where did it go?), I enjoyed Lisa Jardine’s Point of View in BBC News Magazine recently. Jardine shared heated letter exchanges author Virginia Woolf had with a book critic.  Jardine used these exchanges to show that letter writing can provide an opportunity for us to reflect and breathe after getting unwelcome news so that we may reply in a reasoned, respectful manner. She offers that the medium of letters and the traditional conventions of letter writing prevented rude, dis-embodied comments like we see so frequently these days on the internet.

(photo from Encyclopedia Britannica)

But then Jardine shared excerpts from another series of letters exchanged between Woolf and her former lover Vita Sackville-West, letters that resulted in hurt feelings over what was an apparent misunderstanding.  A postal “flame war” erupted before cooler heads prevailed.

The takeaway? Let’s not romanticize letter writing as a higher form of communication so sophisticated that it prevents us mere humans from getting in our own way.  As it turns out, we’re likely to do that no matter the form our communication takes.

But I still think that letters–with their tangible, mutually touched pages–are a far superior format for communication that matters…like apologizing for sending a nasty letter!  Today, their rarity makes them all the more powerful.

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