The first time I met the woman who would become my wife, we were in the college cafeteria, and she introduced herself by saying, “Dawn is a very sexy name.”
She meant it as a joke. She’d recently come from a class on the history of the English language, where the professor had offered his scholarly appraisal of each student’s name. In any case, I was impressed. We were attending such a conservative Christian college that just saying the word “sexy” out loud seemed to risk perdition.
A few weeks later, Dawn asked me to a Valentine’s Day dance. I was her third choice, but she was optimistic. On the way to the dance, she described the kind of wedding ring she wanted. (Two years later, I gave her that ring, but that’s the subject of another tale.)
The day after the dance — a chaste affair at a patrician banquet hall in St. Louis — Dawn came to my family’s Valentine’s Day party. This was a time-honored tradition involving my folks, my grandparents and two great aunts. After lunch, we all exchanged handmade cards and read poems that we’d written for each other.
Our poems were not always very good. As a group, we were better at rhyme than rhythm, though we chased after the feet of a heavy iambic pentameter. My grandfather, who never read a poem unless one appeared in a Zane Grey novel, built all his verses upon the lines, “Roses are red, Violets are blue.” Great Aunt Cele, who taught second grade through most of the 20th century, would always mangle my mother’s poem and be asked, firmly, to read it again — from the top, with feeling.
Miraculously, Dawn arrived at this family gathering with valentines for each of us: heavy stock cards on which she’d painted pastel animals and written sweet quatrains. If I hadn’t married her, my family would have.
Most of those relatives are gone now, and the survivors have scattered around the country. We’re too busy to fiddle with construction paper and doilies, too sophisticated to scrawl out honeyed doggerel for each other.
This time of year, the loss of that tradition hits me like the death of a loved one.
In Deborah Eisenberg’s recent story collection, “Your Duck Is My Duck,” a character thinks, “How would you come to see a person’s handwriting? Nobody has written anything by hand for, like, hundreds of years. Except maybe a check. But a letter? He might as well be clutching an illuminated manuscript!”
True, those missives of ordinary intercourse slipped away so quickly that they already feel antique. Next to the poisoning of American democracy, the loss of handwritten letters seems like a negligible effect of social media, but it’s not.
The retweet has become the bloodless new standard of our personal interaction. And the rot extends further than that. Last month, a gentleman described as “one of America’s top communication coaches and thinkers” wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal claiming that we need to improve our communication with each other by using more emoji.
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Across any distance, a handwritten note projects a flutter of intimacy that’s unimaginable in our sterile e-world. A hundred frowny faces can’t console the grieving widow like a single piece of stationery on which a friend inscribes her sympathy. The temporal images of Snapchat can’t drive the pulse like the arrival of an actual love letter, in the flesh.
I was reminded again of this power as I paged through a new book from TASCHEN and the Morgan Library called “The Magic of Handwriting.” Based on the unparalleled collection of Brazilian art historian Pedro Corrêa do Lago, this hefty volume offers gorgeous reproductions of handwritten letters, envelopes and cards by artists, writers, politicians and entertainers composed over hundreds of years. Each document appears in full color alongside an English translation and a brief biographical description. Among the many treasures is a letter from Vincent van Gogh, two months before he committed suicide, asking his former landlord to ship his belongings to Paris. There’s a postcard from Pablo Picasso scribbled so hastily that it’s hard to imagine it ever reached his Russian friend, Sergei Diaghilev. Benjamin Franklin, writing to George Washington, flaunts handwriting as controlled and elegant as an engraved wedding invitation. Over three sheets of hotel stationery, Maria Callas passionately dashes off her anxiety to a friend: “My soul only knows how much I suffer.”
With each correspondent, we detect more than just the meaning of their words. We see the very spirit of the writer at that moment, caught in lines across the page, a kind of seismograph of the spirit.
Aside from its immense historical value, “The Magic of Handwriting” reminds us of how easily we’ve been seduced by the meretricious allure of convenience and efficiency. We’ve traded away our birthright of correspondence for a mess of stewing email.
The title of this collection comes from a letter written in the early 20th century by Stefan Zweig to his friend Rainer Maria Rilke. Zweig implores the poet to send him a handwritten copy of one of his poems. “I realize it is a lot to ask,” Zweig writes, “for I know the magic of handwriting well, and I know that the gift of a manuscript is also the gift of a secret — a secret that unveils itself only for love.”
How true that remains today in our speedy, virtual lives when the most loving thing we can give each other is communion unmediated by screens. What is a letter, after all, but the common art of our thoughts drawn onto the page, as tangible as our own bodies but miraculously more permanent?
In her preface to “The Magic of Handwriting,” Christine Nelson, a curator at the Morgan Library, notes that a handwritten note has the magical capacity “to conjure the human being who once marked the paper.” Such magic isn’t limited to historical figures. We ordinary mortals cast a little of that pixie dust, too, whenever we set pen to paper.
In his new essay collection, “The Book of Delights,” the poet Ross Gay remembers sitting in a workshop taught by Derek Walcott. In “his mellifluous and curt voice,” the Nobel laureate asked his students “if they composed by hand or on a computer.” The computer writers who spoke up were immediately told to leave.
He was kidding. Sort of.
Writing by hand is an art, and even for those of us who don’t consider ourselves artists, such scribblings, cramped and partially illegible, are a bastion against the forces of mechanization that would reduce us all to clicks, algorithms and advertising data.
In an essay called “Putting Pen to Paper, but Not Just Any Pen to Just Any Paper,” Mary Gordon celebrates the act of using her black enamel Waterman with a gold trim: “Writing by hand is laborious, and that is why typewriters were invented. But I believe that the labor has virtue, because of its very physicality. For one thing it involves flesh, blood and the thingness of pen and paper, those anchors that remind us that, however thoroughly we lose ourselves in the vortex of our invention, we inhabit a corporeal world.”
Isn’t that what we crave in our antiseptic virtual space: a reminder that, in fact, “we inhabit a corporeal world”? I know this is a lot of pressure to put on a Valentine’s Day card, but, as Emily Dickinson wrote — by hand — “The Heart wants what it wants.”
Go ahead: Sit down, compose a brief note in your own homely script and drop it in the mail. They’re not called Forever stamps for nothing.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
Edited by Christine Nelson
Taschen. 464 pp. $35