Updated: March 11, 2013 6:43AM
If you swing by the Harlan J. Berk coin and antiquities shop, you can buy a Sumarian tablet for $500 and easily read it — if you know cuneiform. It won’t be profound — maybe a receipt for a goat — but its message will be clear after 4,400 years.
Such tablets fell from use in favor of papyrus and its many benefits. It was always ready — no hunting around for damp clay. You didn’t have to bake it afterward. Papyrus couldn’t break. Yes, unlike clay tablets, papyrus does tend to crumble to dust in a few hundred years. But that was of no concern to the average Fertile Crescent merchant.
That’s the human way. We trade permanence for speed. When the U.S. Postal Service announced last week that it’s ending Saturday delivery, brashly sidestepping our dithering Congress, the argument that mail on Saturdays is still a necessity was left solely to postal workers. Nothing good ever comes on Saturday anyway — bills and junk.
Of course, nothing much good comes in the mail the other five days either. A few magazines, if you still subscribe. An occasional check. But no personal letters, at least not at home. At work, people still write; older readers, generally, and readers in prison.
A letter is a physical artifact and easy to retain — tuck it in a box, stuff it in a drawer. People saved them. You could delineate a person’s entire life through letters, though few as excellently as E.B. White, whose collected letters — pulling down the volume — begin when he is 9, writing to his brother, “Mamma brought me a tennis ball and if I be very careful can I use your racket?” and end when he’s a man of 76, encouraging his son, sportswriter Roger Angell (“I thought the closing words of your baseball piece were magnificent”) along the way touching upon the famous books he wrote, like Charlotte’s Web, and his brave stand during the Red Scare, decrying oaths (“I am a member of a party of one, and I live in an age of fear...”)
Email gets there much faster but people tend not save them for long, or if they do, soon you have to crack the old technology to get at it, which can be as challenging as learning cuneiform. In 1997, I had a heated email exchange with Mike Royko — odd to think of Royko emailing, odder still to realize that I’ve been sending emails for over 16 years. The emails slumber on disks in a desk drawer. I opened the drawer, pulled them out and stacked them: 17, count ‘em, 17 hard diskettes, 3.5 inches square, marked with glyphic labels like, “486 ARCHIVE 6 D-J.”
If I still had the old Dell parked for years in the basement, I could haul it out, fire it up and start searching. But I dragged it to the curb long ago and can’t imagine whatever exchange of insults Royko and I had is worth my tracking down someone who still has a computer that takes these little diskettes.
The virtual world has a way of disappearing. When I went out west with my boys in 2009, I posted updates to Facebook — I remember taking snapshots, thinking something had shifted, and I wasn’t taking pictures to show folks back home anymore but to toss online so my hive of Facebook friends could follow our adventures. But when I wrote a book about the trip — unpublished, for the future amusement of the boys — I went back to refer to those Facebook posts, and they were simply gone. Vanished.
That happens with letters too. They’re thrown out, burned. But they also get saved; that’s what I used to do, filing by month, and all you need to do to go back in time is slide a manilla file out and open it. No old tech needed. Just pick randomly ... January, 1999. A letter from Eppie Lederer — Ann Landers — “I never miss your column and was surprised to run into my name yesterday...”
Sometimes hurdles might be a good thing. Deep in the basement, there is a bag of letters — a jumbled, basketball-sized mass of correspondence — tied with a thick piece of blue yarn, letters from my high school girlfriend, written after I went off to college. I tried to read them once. Couldn’t do it.
Oh okay. Clomp down to the basement, up with the bag, untie the blue yarn. It’s 1979. Nope. Nope. Nope. “It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m in the middle of a bunch of difficult reading material but I find it impossible to concentrate with you on my mind...” No, not that either. Oh, wait. “It’s very frustrating to wait all day for your mail,” she wrote. Yes, I seem to remember that. Back when the only way important stuff got to you was through the mail, waiting could be agony. Remember the song? “I’ve been standing here waiting Mr. Postman, soooo oh oh patiently...”
We adopt new technology because it’s cheaper and faster, which in our minds equals better. Maybe it is. But technological gains are not without drawbacks. The thrill of driving will be lost when cars drive themselves, but so will backing over your toddler in the driveway; that might be a smart trade. Come August the mail won’t be delivered on Saturday. One day down, five more to go.