Has the pen lost its might?

July 29, 2005

Letter-writing could become a lost art in the age of e-mail, and future biographers will be denied a rich source of material. Olga Wojtas reports

Graham Farmelo is profoundly grateful that long-distance phone calls were rare in the 1920s and 30s. The senior research fellow at London's Science Museum is researching a biography of physicist Paul Dirac, and to this end he is in Princeton working his way through a vast collection of letters sent between leading scientists from around the world. The archive constitutes a remarkably rich source of information, mapping out the development of quantum theory.

"A transatlantic phone call was a real event, and so people were forced to write," Farmelo explains. "It is the last stage in the golden age of letter-writing.

"Everyone uses e-mail now, and it's an absolute godsend. But on the other hand, it has debased the art of friendly, discursive writing. People are much more matter of fact in e-mails."

Farmelo's fear, though, is that the popularity of e-mail will hamper future biographers searching for information.

Is letter-writing a dying art? Margaret Elphinstone, professor of writing at Strathclyde University, believes that style has been undermined in an era of instant communication. In her view, the keyboard has not encouraged fine work.

"Many people who wrote manuscripts by hand, such as Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen, didn't make a lot of corrections," Elphinstone notes. "Today we edit and edit. They must have had much more concentrated thought - and our minds must be more all over the place."

She observes that John Gibson Lockhart, Scott's son-in-law and biographer, described the author at work, observing page after page turning as they were completed. "Scott wasn't cutting and pasting, running his spellcheck," she points out.

"But the irony is that we spend more time on e-mail than we did writing letters. My grandfather was an MP and before breakfast, he would sit in his study and answer by hand all his constituents' letters and then come to breakfast having done it. A person could be doing e-mail all day," she says.

Colin Nicholson, professor of English literature at Edinburgh University, believes that the hectic pace of life has prompted the decline in writing.

People today tend to rush through rather than check text, he says.

"Though I use e-mail myself all the time - who doesn't? - I think it has helped to blight the written art of personal communication. The speed of transmission seems to have had a deleterious effect on the care of construction; these missives are now more often than not slapdash affairs, dispatched uncorrected."

He remembers, some 15 years ago, being asked politely to wait outside a senior colleague's room while the colleague finished writing a letter. The task took 20 minutes. The scene is now difficult to imagine, but Nicholson himself still picks up a fountain pen when he has something important to say, and Elphinstone remembers the days when it was considered the height of rudeness to type a personal letter.

"There are certain letters, such as letters of condolence, I'd never dream of typing," she says. "Part of the art of letter-writing is handwriting.

Somebody's handwriting is like a fingerprint - it's personal."

Adam Roberts, professor of 19th-century literature at Royal Holloway, University of London, admits that he now types almost everything because his handwriting has deteriorated so much. He is not alone: at a recent exam board, the staff considered instituting special classes for first-years because of the growing problem of illegible scripts.

"Students spend their life typing on keyboards and their handwriting is just atrocious," he says.

Roberts, who like Elphinstone is an author as well as an academic, takes equal care over formal letters and e-mails: "I'd hope to write stylistically on the same level." He feels the art of letter-writing persists despite modern technology. The content of newspaper letters pages is generally elegantly phrased, Roberts says, while today's teenagers probably write more than any previous generation because they spend so much time texting one another. "It is different from conventional English and some people deplore that," he admits. "But they're still writing a lot and it's vigorous and energised. Language evolves, and it's fruitless to complain about it."

Elphinstone is unconvinced. "Label me a dinosaur, but I will not learn to text. It forces one to communicate in something worse than telegrammese.

Telegrams can have their uses, as Sherlock Holmes well knew, but it's like a straitjacket. I can't have a style."

Many critics have divined a sign of declining literacy in the runaway success of Eats, Shoots and Leaves , the punctuation guide by Lynne Truss, a former Times Higher journalist. Roberts disagrees: "It seemed to me exactly the opposite. It suggested that it really struck a chord with people who cared about writing correctly."

Roberts is optimistic about the underlying writing trends. When e-mails first took off, people failed to use capitals and constantly made typographical errors, he says. But they now take more care.

Nicholson acknowledges that his students still exhibit writing skill. "They are able to write letters that are worth reading," he says. "And certainly when I get letters from them asking for references, they are well-turned and give me the necessary information to build an accurate reference."

In common with the rest of their generation, though, those students tend to e-mail rather than write by hand. In an e-mail, the author Philip Pullman outlines the pros and cons of the switch to the internet: "(a) written communication has increased since e-mail was invented - I mean words we read with the eye, and

(b) it's become quicker and more informal, though those new to e-mail still begin "Dear So and so ...", and

(c) it all takes up far too much time, and

(d) it's going to be hell for future biographers, supposing any biographies will be written in the future, but

(e) it is convenient to have a sort of pigeon-hole to go and look in."

Farmelo has doubts about the pigeon-hole. In a perfect world, e-mails would be easy to retrieve from servers. "But they're very, very easy to bin," he reflects. "Posterity is not something that people think about until too late." He adds that he knows of no organisation that encourages promising young scientists to build archives of their correspondence.

But Paula Byrne, research fellow at Liverpool University and author of Perdita , a biography of 18th-century feminist and royal mistress Mary Robinson, does not delete e-mails. In particular, she has preserved research messages from fellow academics. "They're absolutely like a good letter, very cordial and friendly, intelligent and interesting."

As former editor of the British Journal of Canadian Studies whose correspondence was carried out via the internet, Nicholson has likewise learnt to keep e-mails. "Much of the journal's correspondence was deleted, and then I started to store it when I realised it could form a valuable archive."

Letters are often considered to offer a unique insight into their author.

But that is something Farmelo questions. Early 20th-century scientists were much more "buttoned up", he says. "To make any decent biography, you have to speculate on what's between the lines, a mixture of rigorous scholarship and intelligent speculation."

He believes that e-mails - dashed off and often trivial - could offer biographers a much more valuable picture. "If we could somehow obtain that, the rewards would be even richer," he says. "I have to guess what Fermi really thought about Dirac. If I had his e-mail correspondence, I imagine X-rated stuff would be out there."

But even if there was a move to preserve e-mails, Farmelo is pessimistic about how many would survive. Wilhelm Konrad Rontgen, the discoverer of X-rays, made a bonfire of contentious correspondence. Arthur Eddington, one of the first physicists to grasp the theory of relativity, also destroyed acrimonious letters. "Nobody wants people to read their snotty Monday-morning e-mail. Everybody has an off-day," Farmelo says.

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