Long Form Letter Writing

A simple but important thing like letter-writing has also undergone a noticeable change. It used to be an art, not only in the world of literature. Mathematicians were voluminous letter writers. They wrote in longhand and communicated at length intimate and personal details as well as mathematical thoughts. Today the availability of secretarial help renders such personal exchanges more awkward, and as it is difficult to dictate technical material scientists in general and mathematicians in particular exchange fewer letters. In my file of letters from all scientists I have known, a collection extending over more than forty years, one can see the gradual, and after the war accelerated, change from long, personal, handwritten letters to more official, dry, typewritten notes. In my correspondences of recent years, only two persons have continued to write in longhand: George Gamow and Paul Erdös.

— Stan Ulam, from Adventures of a Mathematician, p. 293

Adventures of a Mathematician was originally published in 1976. That makes Ulam's observation almost forty years old.

I have, at various times, commented on my nostalgia for long-form letters. In my own recent past, I have only written two or three longhand letters, and only received one myself.

I try to write emails as if they are longhand letters. But that isn't quite the same. I wonder if this nostalgia is misplaced, or if there really is something that will be missing from our and future generations.

Immediately upon arriving at Santa Fe, I had the intuition for why longhand letters used to be so popular. Pre-internet, the only way to really stay in touch with a large number of people was to write to them. (Or to call them on the phone, but that used to be expensive.) Now, when I feel homesick, I can fire up my browser, direct it to Facebook, and forget that I'm 1800 miles from home.

I don't think that's a good thing.