It is intriguing to find someone who claims to have a hard time socialising through social media, although claims is perhaps the wrong word and should be substituted by admits. To be honest, I believe there are thousands of people who cannot build up a real social life, find real friends and companions, through the social media websites, or through the mass of interconnected smart phone applications which are continually coming onto the market. Most people are afraid to admit it because social media is the thing of our times, and everyone else appears to be having great successes, sharing their exciting and eventful lives with the world: no one wants to be left out; seen as an outsider by all those people who think that they are in. And the truth is, for me at least, those who use social media to build up or maintain a social life without the need for personal contact, without face-to-face or lengthy written conversations, are the ones having a hard time. To me this whole action of finding a social life with or through social media smacks of desperation, of a need to be seen, to be liked, to be accepted as one of the in people. The reality is that most of the exciting things happen to those who are not following the latest fashion, who are not just letting themselves be seen and wondered over. It is those few (many hundreds can, I suppose, still be counted as a few) who walk around without their face stuck to the small screen who see things in life. It is those who look beyond their own image, snapped as the latest selfies, who notice the world around them.
Who in their right mind really wants, or needs, to have four or five thousand effectively anonymous followers saved in a computer system somewhere on the American continent? Is it possible to be in touch with all of these people, and do them all justice, all at the same time? Friendship is about being close to someone. Being social is about being with a small group of people. Social media with five thousand friends or followers fulfils neither of these prerequisites. And it certainly cannot satisfy the personal needs of anyone who is after real friendship, real conversation or a real social atmosphere.
Now, most people would immediately write me off as an old fogey – irrespective of how old I may be – caught in the mists of a time gone by with an aversion to modern technology. In the old days we – because I am not the only one – would have been called Luddites, although I’m not so sure that I would want to go about destroying this new technology, as was the trend back in the nineteenth century; I use it too but have fewer expectations and know its limits as well as my own. I prefer to think of myself as someone who is happy to let other people finance such companies as Apple, Samsung, Nokia &Co., but would much rather use a telephone to speak and a pen and paper – or laptop and printer – to communicate. We all have our own way through life, and this old-fashioned stance has stood me in good stead so far; there is no reason to suppose it will let me down just yet. At least, not until the post office ceases to exist and stamps can only be found in a few rare museums and private collections. Letter writing has been written off as a dead art, one which no one follows anymore, so often that I am sure it will remain in our midst, like an immortal god of old, watching down over us from the heights of Olympia, good willed, good natured, and working relentlessly in the background for the good of all mankind, whether we recognise the extent of this work or not.
To Olympus, where they say the gods’ dwelling stands always safe; it is not shaken by winds, nor drenched by showers of rain, nor does snow come near it; always unclouded the air spreads out, and a white radiance lies upon it
although I appreciate that Homer could hardly have put thoughts of social media into the mind of Zeus and the other gods, and most certainly would not have seen the extent to which this or any other new technology would overtake the world. Perhaps, had he been writing of our times, he would have substituted social media, smart phones and all the other annoying technological advances of our era for the wind, rain and snow on earth in olden times.
Letter writing, on the other hand, has stood the test of time. You remember it, you say, as being something interesting tried out in the bloom of your youth, and you loved it. I wonder whether that was the excitement of having letters arrive addressed exclusively to you; of holding a personal message rather than an official notification; of having something which you could keep away from everyone else; of receiving something absolutely unique. Perhaps it was all of these things, it certainly was for me when I first began seriously considering the possibilities of writing to a few people, worldwide, regularly. And then the discovery:
On the subject of letter writing, I want to say this: that it is the kind of work in which my friends think I have some ability.
The knowledge that we can actually do something special, despite all around us constantly judging and claiming we could do better, if only we would concentrate more on the task at hand – well, that’s what I was told at school at the end of each term, but only because letter writing wasn’t included on the school curriculum as a grade course, just as a small, insignificant part of English. And Michel de Montaigne, who I quote here from 1572, wasn’t even a prolific letter writer, he concentrated more on writing articles about life, for which he is justifiably famous, and a few Italian travel diaries. Letter writing was more the speciality of people like Marcus Tullius Cicero and Horace Walpole – to take only two examples from many hundreds I could name, and then several centuries apart – but then only as a sideline to their real lives. Not that such social abilities do not belong to real life, but many still see letter writing as an aberration or merely a hobby, and not as a necessary and highly enjoyable part of social intercourse.
It is much the same, I have discovered, with books: they are an interesting sideline for when we are travelling by train or plane, and have nothing else to do. A quick romance – Barbara Cartland or any of the other hundreds of quick reads with a satisfying, feel-good ending – a Western, something without too much depth so concentration isn’t required, but the time goes by. Heaven forbid that we should come into contact or begin a conversation with anyone seated near us. Heaven forbid that we should learn something from the printed page.
Ever idle hours breed wandering thoughts
according to Lucan, which is fine by me, so long as we can harness these wandering thoughts and turn them to good use. A dissertation is not written without thinking, without contemplation, and sometimes the strangest images come to mind when we have a chance to think, while we are reading a good book, or following the course of our thoughts on paper, in a letter. Books, the whole art of literature, has been written off by some as dead in the age of new technology: we have eBooks for those who feel this strange urge to read, and that should suffice, they claim. And yet the publishing business flourishes in its way; there are a few publishing houses which will disappear, a few which will amalgamate with others, but that has always been a fact of life. The books we see published are accepted, read, discussed, and advance the idea of a real social life too. How can anyone be social if they have nothing to talk about, if they just sit still and stare into space or, as we have now, into the small screen of their smart phone waiting for something to happen to someone else so that they can react. It is far better to share a cup of coffee with someone in real life, than to share the photograph of a cup of coffee.
Come to that, a letter is not written without some thought, without some recourse to our social abilities, our experiences and everything else which social media and a lack of real life friendships cannot offer. How many people can write a letter about someone else’s status update on Facebook? Such things are designed for the Internet, and should stay there. Letter writing is a very personal, almost intimate matter between two people, and not for sharing with the entire world. That is, as Virginia Woolf wrote to Ethel Smyth in September 1938, unless a person happens to be famous and then:
Let’s leave the letters till we’re both dead
which that strikes me as being an exceptionally good idea, as long as I get to read and write many thousands of letters before that inevitable day dawns. And, of course, drink many cups of coffee – in the mornings – and tea – in the afternoons – with friends in real life. I won’t go on to glasses of good red wine in the evenings since, as I am sure you appreciate, this social habit is almost a must, in moderation.
Returning, however, to books: I have discovered that there is still a massive interest in printed publications, at least in the area where I live, so much so that my small town supports a good bookstore, and the next major town now has three, a new one having opened this year. I hadn’t realised that there is a new book shop in the centre of town, and visited the old one to inspect their one small shelf of English-language books before, disappointed as always, buying two. The book shop here stocks no English-language titles, they all have to be ordered specially and that, sadly, can take several weeks. Much as I would like to support them more, I am forced to go elsewhere: naturally I buy German-language books too, but it is sometimes beneficial to read a book in its original language get the full meaning, especially when the nuances of that language cannot be adequately translated. Translating, for example, dark British humour into German just does not work, at all. Having now discovered the new bookstore, with a full set of shelves dedicated to English-language books, I was compelled to purchase a few more titles, so I am well set up for the rest of this week at least: seven books waiting, one half-finished and a few difficult-to-find titles due delivery from Amazon.
Despite my quotations, which I have always peppered my letters with, I tend to read more modern fiction than anything else. From the books I’ve just bought only two are not fictional: one is an older title from Sarah Bakewell which is more biographical, and the second is a collection of letters from the poet Emily Dickinson. The rest are crime and thrillers from Hanna Lindberg, Elisabeth Herrmann, Robert Harris, Jeffrey Deaver and Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time. I enjoyed his The Sense of an Ending when it first came out and am hoping that this study in literary and musical arts will also prove enthralling. The one book I’m still waiting for is Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature, on Alexander von Humboldt which was on offer in German, as a brand new publication storming the German bestseller lists, but appeals to me more in the original. That and the fact that the English paperback costs a third of the German hardcover. I have more books than bookshelves, and the space which should be available for those books which have not yet found a space is shared with my other hobby, a larger than average collection of photographs dating from before 1920 and, as a sideline to this sideline hobby, about three hundred old cameras. I do intend building more shelves, I’ve been promising myself this one thing for years or, better, promising the books this one thing. I don’t mention the other things which need doing in my house, just in case it all ends up feeling too much and overwhelming and I give up, and that just would not do.
There are undoubtedly thousands of other things which could be written about, all to do with society, with social mores, with friendships, social media, letter writing, books and literature, and a list which is undoubtedly endless once you begin thinking about the possibilities. But a letter is not a book, it is not designed for all and sundry, but for one specific person and, as a unique entity, should be tailored to that person. That is, if you know the person: their interests; surroundings; experiences; life. That most certainly isn’t the case here; here I am writing into the ether on the off-chance that there is something within these words which interests, which compels – to a certain degree – which shows that there is more to life, much more to life, than that which social media claims to offer, and that anyone who finds they cannot create and maintain a virtual social life through the Internet has probably also discovered that real life is all around them, all the time, and not connected to other virtual social lives and semi-anonymous characters through a series of servers and a monitor.