Leading Article: Is the pen mightier than the modem?

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THE PAD of Basildon Bond paper, once synonymous with childhood thank-you notes to relatives and coyly scribbled lines to young sweethearts, is a fading feature of our lives: the company has been forced by 'industry pressures' to lay off 500 workers. But does that mean letter-writing is dying out?

Fine epistolary arts have surely been eclipsed by telephones and modems. It is hard to imagine compiling a biography of a modern statesman through letters, in the way that Winston Churchill's personality and perceptions can be penetrated through the mountain of letters (sent and unsent) that he left behind. Nor is it likely that authors now living will be remembered, in the manner of Keats or Proust, for their letter-writing craft; biographers already base their analyses of life and character more on interviews and recollections than on the privately addressed written word.

The fact is, however, that more written mail is being sent than ever before. Of course, most of it is junk mail - but a great deal of written mail now arrives on facsimile machines and electronic mail rather than through the post: in America, some people talk of the revival of letter-writing by fax. Some of the new forms may not survive for posterity to pore over, but they still represent the written word, and the written word is always more than an unrecorded conversation.

In the solemnity of sadness or the joys of celebration, when we need to be earnest, or passionate, or deeply persuasive, we still prefer the pen or the keyboard to the phone. The reason is contained in the simple phrase, to 'commit' yourself to writing: we know, somehow, that it is a more momentous act to compose words that may be revisited by their recipient than to utter a sentiment aloud. Maybe that is why we hoard even those curtailed gestures at letter-writing that modern life allows, whether they be postcards from friends, or lovers' protestations penned long ago. Thankfully, even in this supposedly post-epistolary age, attic boxes and bottom drawers will continue to be stuffed with cherished stores of written memorabilia.

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