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Joys of letter-writing alive and well

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Joys of letter-writing alive and well

Handwritten letters might seem a quaintly old-fashioned method of communicating in the era of emails, text messaging and video conferencing.

But Massey design student Anne Hsu says there is no better time than Christmas to pause from pounding out yet another ephemeral email and instead calmly pen a few handwritten cards and messages.

Ms Hsu's love affair with epistolary inspired her final-year project – a stunning coffee table design book dedicated to the history, art and practice of writing letters.

A letter-writer of the old school variety since she was a youngster, the 21-year-old Taiwan-born Albany resident is frequently the envy of her flatmate when she returns from the letterbox with handwritten letters instead of just bills and other computer-generated correspondence like most of us.

“I explain to my flatmate it’s because I write letters to people myself, and they write back,” says Anne, who has just completed a Bachelor of Design in Visual Communications Design.

She hopes more young people will look beyond the often slap-dash email approach to communicating with distant loved ones and instead to pick up a biro, fine felt tip or even a cartridge pen.

People tend to keep handwritten letters and over time they become precious mementos full of experiences, thoughts and details that are less likely to be expressed, let alone saved in abbreviated emails, she says.

“A handwritten letter is tactile. You get a sense of the mood of the person and how they are thinking. It’s more expressive than email.”

Proof of a handwritten letter’s longevity in her own life was when she replied to a friend she had last received a letter from 11 years ago. Fortunately, her friend was still at the same address, and they have resumed contact.

To further strengthen her case regarding the charm and enduring power of the handwritten missive, her book Encrypted Letter Writing evokes historic, dramatic letter-writing legends. She retells tales involving the use of crypted, or coded, letters to pass on poignant or politically sensitive messages – a reminder that letter-writing was once an exciting form of communication at the forefront of human exchange and military machinations.

Ancient Greek thinker Herodotus wrote in Histories of how exiled Greek Demaratus’s secret writing on a wax-covered tablet saved Greece from being conquered by Persia in the 5th century BC, while Julius Caesar used encrypted messages to execute military strategies. In the 16th century, an imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots received coded treasonous letters via a beer barrel from an English Catholic priest acting as a double agent.

Part of her project was to encourage handwriting, so she recruited 50 people aged between six and 60 to demonstrate their skills, which she then published in her book. The samples reveal an immense variety of styles, although many felt their writing was merely scribble and scrawl.

Neatness is not the point though, she says. Getting a real letter from someone is simply a thrill.


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