Thursday, April 2, 2009

Bits of Simple Paper

With the back of a gloved hand, I wiped away a crescent of fog from the taxi window and gazed up at the enigmatic old building rising solidly before me in the steel coloured sky. The British Museum. Home to more enchantment than the mind could fathom. Paying the driver, I joined the muffled throng ascending the stone steps and soon found myself inside. There, in the glowing cavernous room to my right, within ancient wooden cases with heavy glass tops, lay the wonders I had come to see.

Inside the first, lying there open, was a small notebook containing all the magical words that made up the novel, Jane Eyre, the very words written by Charlotte Bronte herself, in her very own tiny, perfect script. There it was, the book that I had read at the age of thirteen, under the blankets with a flashlight - the book that left me with an abiding thirst for all that literature could offer. I could scarcely breathe as I stared at this original manuscript. Then I noticed, over to the side of the room, a crowd was gathered around another case. Walking over slowly, I could see that inside rested the handwritten, iconic lyrics of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Words that defined a generation; words that had changed the culture. I stood a bit off to the side and watched as people of all nationalities approached these bits of simple paper with near reverence, some of them softly singing the songs to themselves in a melange of exotic accents. Tears stung my eyes as I witnessed the astounding power of the written word. Whether book, poem or lyric, when the very words that have been instrumental in shaping your life and your heart, words that have influenced the way in which you see the world or helped you find your way in it....when the original incarnation of those words is right before your very eyes, well... it is an overwhelming experience.

I think back often to that drizzly afternoon in the British Museum. I have never lost the awestruck feeling of gazing down at those wondrous written treasures. And these days, I have to confess, I fear for the written word. There does not seem to be a day that passes without reports of another newspaper switching over to online availability only, while I myself find it utterly impossible to imagine a morning without a pot of hot coffee and the Times spread out on the kitchen table. Now, I am no Luddite. I use technology almost as much as anyone, with the possible exception of a teenager. I find email a valuable tool for handling business and for staying in contact with people one might otherwise lose track of, and I am writing these words on a
blog, for goodness sake. But I do wonder what sort of legacy is being left and what sort of environment is being fashioned when so much of what is written and read exists only in the digital realm.

When I look into the eyes of Vincent Van Gogh as they stare out at me from one of his many haunting self-portraits, the experience is infinitely more powerful because I have read the moving letters that exist between the artist and his beloved brother, Theo. Indeed, the letters of E.B. White or C.S. Lewis, Virginia Woolf or Beatrix Potter are so inspiring, so enlightening, it grieves me to think of the scarcity of such correspondence in the current age. The love letters I have tied up with a velvet ribbon in the box under my bed? Somehow I cannot imagine retaining the same sweet fondness for a folder full of emails. And it seems, with the current text and tweet phenomenon, the infinite glory of the English language is constantly being whittled to an ever more insignificant series of nonsensical acronyms, dashes and dots.

I realize I am perilously close to the edge of a rant and I hasten to say that I am fresh out of answers. Perhaps the ship has sailed. But I for one shall go down swinging. And who knows, maybe one day I myself shall be in a museum, sitting upright in a mahogany display case with a hat on my head.

No doubt my label shall declare me to be ...
The Last Surviving Letter Writing, Newspaper Subscribing, Hardback Reading,
Old Crank on the Planet!

Painting: Self-Portrait With Straw Hat, 1887 by Vincent van Gogh


  1. I see myself mirrored in your soul, Pamela. It is for the same reason that I have journals describing the process of my paintings, I read hardcover books, and I print out some of the comments on my blogs - it's to preserve some of the most important parts of my life, like Vincent (i think unknowingly) did.

  2. Love Van Gough... self portrait.
    Just found the blog..
    lamaisonfou blog

  3. Keep fighting. The written word is so important. I hate that it's dying. I so ant a kindle but there is nothing like a book. Nothing like a newspaper. You just don't get it all on the web. Oh the artist soul.

  4. Pamela - I will join you - I still write letters and enjoy doing so - and I also enjoy receiving them - but I do agree with you that the age of letter-writing is almostdead. I resolve to keep it going in my lifetime - e mails are no substitute whatsoever.

  5. I love van Gogh's letters too--they offer a wonderful window into his work and thoughts.

    I so agree. I'm finishing my second book right now and worry about the market all the time.
    Things are looking scary.

    I'm trying to find any reason to buy books as gifts--new ones, not used, to support the authors. They need us!

  6. truly, you are correct.

    and email is cold in camparison to the hand written note or letter.

    you know that the sender actually held the pen in their hand, between their fingers, including the very ink from the any pen makes it special.

    you can also tell how they were feeling at the time...if it is neat and perfectly written, or wild bold strokes.

    no, a letter sent throught the post is definately ' NO EMAIL.'


  7. oh yes, nothing so precious than the love letters, childrens sweet written notes & poems, their words set upon paper so very carefully, memories held in faded letters from my grandmother. The delicious expectation as you hold a book, the smell, the weight, the words. To sit snug in a corner and read - one of my most favourite things to do.

  8. Very beautiful blog by a very talented lady I think:)

  9. Fear not of standing alone, for the written word is what binds us together as a human race...
    Though technology has provided instant gratification in the relaying of fact or message, it shall be the faded ink upon the page that pauses the heart to skip a beat.
    And for those of us that cherish the written word so deeply, shall fight to the end for its very existence.
    Once again Pamela a most moving post.
    PS ~ I love Edward's bunny ears.
    xo Susan

  10. I feel the same Pamela.
    I love books, bookshops and librarys.
    I read/heard somewhere that in the future our generations history will be lost due to everything being recorded digitally on cd/disc. These will not last as the written word on paper has.
    I always try and give a book as a gift when I can and will continue to do so.
    Great post and you have made me want to visit the BM again! :)

  11. Pamela, I had lost you!! Thank goodness you left a comment on Weaver's blog and you are found again!! I changed my layout and my friends disappeared!

    You are so right about the written word. I had a huge pile of love letters too and letters from pen friends all over the world, plus my sister in Australia. They are precious to me. Will anyone have such things in the future? I do doubt it too. So sad.

    Buster sends his lovel

  12. Very good post! I always gain insight when I read your blog! Thanks!

  13. Writing notes, letters, cards etc seem like a dying art. I too am trying to hold on to it as long as I can. I'm not one that enjoys clutter, but I hold onto all of my cards and letter tied in stacks with satin ribbon put in containers. Someday maybe someone will enjoy reading them.
    I have always like this painting of Vincent Van Gogh. His eyes hold this soul and so much to tell.

    Thanks Pamela! xoxo

  14. well first, this is one of my all time favorite paintings! - second, you are not alone - books are one of my most loved things on the planet! - I have never been a regular newspaper reader, but my husband is a devotee - a huge alarm has sounded, but I don't know if anyone is listening....

  15. I wonder often about these very things. Will the hand-written note be taken over by a "Thank~You" email??? I cannot imagine. I cannot imagine not feeling the pages or the scent of a book from the library.
    Beautifully done Pamela.

  16. Vincent van Gogh was a wonderful of my favorites.Isn't going to a Museum pure magic...stepping into a complete new(or old) world..I love I do writing..

  17. Hello P&E,

    I'm sure they won't label you as an 'old crank' Pamela!

    When one considers how fragile paper is, it is a wonder that so much ancient correspondence survives at all. But it also takes up a great deal of space and that is what we are so desperately short of. It is a quandry.

  18. I am with you on the letter writing problem. I use the internet a great deal for correspondence but I do mourn the loss of the handwritten letter. Somehow it is much nicer to receive one than an email missive, and seems more personal, as if someone has taken trouble over it - which they have.

  19. I will be the even older crank sitting next to you! Have a wonderful weekend Pamela, xv.

  20. I envy you that wonderful trip to the British Museum, and might
    I'll join that club as well? I can't imagine only reading a book online and not being able to smell the pages and hold a hard bound edition in my hands.

  21. Pamela, you definitely are not an anomaly. A book is a treasure trove. The thing we missed most after the fire was our library of books. It was as thoughwe we had lost our safety blanket. Vincent's letters were there too, my collection of art books, leather bound Alexander Dumas and all the rest. We really felt stripped naked without them.

  22. You won't be lonely! I worry about these things all the time. I love the word Luddite and have never heard anyone else use it...I laughed out loud. I have a friend who is an exceptional knitter and I told her to knit a sweater with the word Luddite across the chest! And seeing manuscripts of works you admire - I know, I know! Enjoy your weekend, Pamela.

  23. I'm with you doll. We will hold each other up on this letter writing call.

    Great post.


  24. I don't text or tweet, don't have a cell phone (I really only enjoy talking on the phone if I must). I don't read newspapers but I do love my hardback library books - no Kindle's here.

    Miss Winnie Dixon is quite upset with me because I meant to (and forgot) leave a comment on her behalf a few posts ago - the one where "some bunny" was looking especially handsome & dashing.

    happy spring to all.xo from les Gang.

  25. Who wants to curl up in front of the fire with a really good...Kindle?? Not me. I like the way books look, feel, and even sometimes smell. We get 3 newspapers, and I hope none of them disappear anytime soon.

  26. I have kept all the letters that my mother and father and aunts wrote to my little family on a weekly basis. Re-reading them I can just see my mom and dad, their quirks and little habits, their love for us and concern about their grandchildren. I also have letters from my children, letters to my children from myself. The choicest are in an album. The rest, like your love letters, in a pretty box in a safe place.

  27. This morning I received a wonderful letter by post from a dear friend, have been to the library and taken out 3 hardback books, been into the museum for a second look at a wondeful exhibition including some early books and manuscripts and from there to look at some wonderful ceramics. I have been shopping and come home with a newspaper as well as food for the weekend and now although I am on the computer - I can't imagine life without any of the other things.

  28. I agree that our generation is not leaving much of a written legacy for the generations to come to pour over and contemplate.

    Because I've never kept a journal, I've thought that I should make a book of some of my blog entries so my grandchildren will have a record of what my life was like, what I thought and the important things that have happened to me. I've written more about myself in this past year than I ever have before.

  29. You have some kindred souls, Pamela - thank goodness. I too have boxes of letters, packets tied with ribbon letters, and drawers of letters and cards! They evoke such memories!
    My children text like mad - I hate it!!
    A lovely post, as always.

  30. It is up to people like us to keep the ART of writing and fine arts alive in our spirits and try to communicate it in our blogs! Cheers and merci beaucoup for coming to read the entries for my play! Anita

  31. Have you ever read the letters of Charles Lamb, Pamela? I used to wish I could have him for a correspondent. Nowadays I am grateful to have friends willing to write letters at all--and many of them write very wonderful letters indeed. One of the glories of my winter here in central Florida has been having time to write and receive real letters on paper. My hearts lifts hopefully on the walk to the post office. Some days, as many as three letters await! I stop to read them on the bridge, laughing out loud.

    Your feeling at the British Museum reminds me of mine on my first visit to the Art Institute in Chicago when I stood in front of an original Monet and realized the ocean of difference between a painting and a reproduction. Now, after many years of marriage to a painter, that distinction is all the more vivid to my eye and mind.

  32. Great post and I have to agree with your sentiments.
    I too love letters and enjoy reading books of letters written in the past, they are so revealing.
    And being a librarian I need say no more about books :)

  33. I never read books online. How can you beat curling up on the settee with a good book, the feel and smell of it as well as the content?

    However, I feel as 'precious' about the comments I receive on my blog as I do about hand-written letters. They are words from lovely people, from whom I would not receive any correspondence if it were not for computers!

  34. I agree, there is an intimacy about handwriting that makes an instant connection, like the warmth of a human handshake, which sets it apart from any other form of communication.

    I felt the same way when I first visited the Bronte's home in Howarth or when I visited Dove cottage and saw Dorothy Wordsworth's handwriting.

  35. There is nothing that can make me swoon like reading an old diary or letters written in the 19th century! I was the only tourist that headed straight to the bookcases in the libraries of the old Natchez houses the other day!
    The written word spellbinds me!
    I love the post!!

  36. Good morning Pamela,
    as Vincent might have said,
    ear ear...

  37. But also:
    I copy out my blogs and post a selection of them to my parents who love to hear from a different side of me.
    I also indulge in lots of postcard making and sending.

    Like most bloggers I enjoy the feedback and encouragement from fellow bloggers but I can't help feel sometimes that the messages are not as meaningful because they are coming from strangers I am unlikely to ever know, even those with lovely intentions.
    But on the other hand I feel very connected to some of these 'strangers' so I guess this cross section of the community is like any other and it's a matter of gravitating towards those that we can empathise with and relate to.

  38. ---..---.....omg---ttyl---bbf..--..-.-/.-ay...oh no...twit..face look...bluggers...

  39. It's a tricky one, isn't it? It's not so much the medium used to record which seems to preclude the preservation of the written word as the sheer volume of it kept in electronic form. We're all doing it, and much of it is good, and while part of me rejoices in this democratisation of writing and picture making and art and correspondence, the other part knows that it simply can't all be preserved and treasured. But I'm still glad we are!

    Cards and journals are still profusely available as stationery...

  40. love Van Gogh's work! i'd be lost without art and/or books! :)

  41. I began my blog so I would have a record of the things I have made. It seemed the best format for that. However on Valentine's Day my teckie hubby wrote by hand on specially bought paper, an absolutely beautiful love letter. He knows I like paper and would appreciate that extra effort.

    Things that are important to us will be preserved, but I agree, a print out of something isn't the same as a hand written personal something, just as a painting cannot be compared to a print of it.

  42. Pamela, I'm with you....Books are such treasures to hold in one's hands, to lift to one's nose and sniff the scent of new pages...or old; Newspaper's shared over the kitchen table with cups of steaming coffee. I couldn't bear technology to change all that. I can imagine the emotion of those magical moments in the museum. Charlotte Bronte's little notebook open for all to wonderful is that! Lovely, lovely post!

  43. Indeed one of my most favorite paintings. The stillness found in the paint. the pushing and the pulling. Paint is like words, dashes, dots, forming art for my soul.

  44. Writing will never cease, and I prefer journals, books and newspapers over what I read on the internet. Changes come and go, and mankind will continue to communicate in words.

  45. Ha ha! The ending of your post made me smile! Hello, I have only just found your lovely blog! I'll be returning again and again because I love how you write. I love the word pictures you paint into my mind. Wonderful sentiments all echoing mine, I too love to write letters. We discover and reveal a part of ourselves within the written word that can remain unseen in the everyday world. Such a troubled genius Van Gogh, how many of us are unreachable and misunderstood like he? I have had those letters you mention in my wish-list for ages.



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