Thomas Jefferson used a contraption called a polygraph duplicator to make copies of the many letters he wrote—as he wrote them. He could then file and store these copies as record of his correspondence. He called the device “the finest invention of the present age.” He also said that a record of one’s correspondence “form the only full and genuine journal of his life.” In fact, these letters provide much of the information we have about Thomas Jefferson, his life and thought.
But most people don’t write letters these days. For almost 20 years now, email has been widely in use. And free long distance and text messaging have made long-distance communication quicker and cheaper. But what about a permanent record of your correspondence? Where is the “genuine journal” of our lives?
Most email clients now enable you to save every email you send and receive. But that wasn’t the case when we started using it. Remember AOL? Remember your old work or school email accounts? What about the messages you had to delete back when your mailboxes reached capacity? What about all the messages downloaded from POP servers and stored locally on your old computer, wherever that is? I just looked in my email folders, and the oldest received email in my archive is from 2000. My oldest sent email saved is from 2010.
I began using email in 1996. During that school year I was a senior in high school and Sara was a freshman in college. At the beginning of the year, letters were our main form of communication. During the year, email became a convenient way to stay in touch without having to wait days for a letter in the mail.
Today, I don’t know if I could find our emails from that year (unless I printed them out). I still have all the letters. And there are others—including the letter my godfather wrote to me on the day of my baptism.
Realizing the permanence of letters like this, in the past few years I began writing actual, handwritten letters to several of my family, friends, and other acquaintances. I had to work on cleaning up my handwriting, which was a problem in the past. (But I would take a sloppily-written letter any day! In my stash of old stuff I have a check written out to me by my grandmother in the last year of her life. Her penmanship was not nearly as beautiful as I hear it once was, but it’s her writing, and that’s precious to me—and it’s just a check.) I found some good monarch-sized stationery, but any piece of paper that can travel from one writing surface to its recipient’s mailbox and hands will work just fine. Sitting down at the end of a day and writing a letter is quite relaxing and enjoyable for me. I like to turn off the tech and work at my desk with pen and paper. I have to admit that it would be better were I to also receive letters in return.
But what about copies? I do not have access to a Jefferson-style polygraph duplicator, but even my old-school tendencies can make good use of good technology. After I write a letter, I use the Evernote app on my phone to snap a picture, which makes the photo available on my computer or any of my devices. Evernote can even recognize handwritten text and use that for searching through your notes. And perhaps, that in-the-cloud database will serve as a long-term record of my outgoing correspondence. Perhaps.
I suspect that the original letters will outlast the digital copies. Time will tell. That’s okay, because it’s time that will make any letters that we actually write and keep into a true and genuine journal of our lives.
Here’s a few links to get you started. Leave a comment, send an email, or write me a letter if you want to know more.