Conversations would be the most boring pastime ever if we all had the same information, on the same topics, and held the same opinion. Fine, there are probably a few other things which are equally or more tedious and which make us yawn broadly just at the mere mention of their name, but at least we would have differing opinions and stances on these subjects, and not be mouthing the same words as someone else is speaking, thinking the same thoughts as they formulate their arguments, reaching for the same references, facts and figures to underpin our own argument. If we all had exactly the same interests, what would there be to learn in life? How would we be able to build up a relationship with another person, or group of people, if they are so similar to us that there is no challenge, no hope that the long silences will be broken by something new, something worthwhile, something exciting. The fact that you have differing interests to my own is, in my opinion, an enhancement and not a barrier to conversation: it gives me a chance to break out of my many comfort zones and go exploring in fields which I have probably not looked at since school; it allows me the pleasure of learning something new, starting on the bottom rung of the ladder again, and looking up into the future.
Whilst my range of interests could appear to be limited to philosophy, history and the classics, you need to remember how much these three subjects encompass. Philosophy is, after all, the origin of chemistry and all the other hard and soft arts and sciences; they were only split away from the core as more and more information and knowledge became available, and as it became necessary to specialise and to allow individuals the freedom to follow one specific path – such as chemistry initially and, later, branches of science within chemistry – rather than having to cover all the philosophical arts, aside from the basic education, in order to scrape something out from their own area of interest. So while my main areas of interest are set fairly rigidly, they are not so rigid that other things remain on the wayside. I am, as an example, currently reading Daniel C. Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds which is a mixture of many areas: Dennett is a professor of Philosophy at Tufts, the book is filed under psychology, and the opening section covers evolution as much as the chemical and biological necessities of life on earth. I’ve just finished reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and the follow-up work Homo Deus, both of which are listed as being history – history of the past and history of the future – but cover many other areas of interest which would not normally be considered pure history, such as the success of Homo Sapiens against the other forms of humankind which existed tens of thousands of years ago, anthropology, some philosophy, some psychology and so on. When you enter into a specific realm of the arts, it is impossible to work without a knowledge, without constant interruptions and crossovers, from the other arts and sciences.
I, too, have tried to read into other areas and not been able to make any headway. There have been many times when someone has seen me reading a book, or heard a title that has perhaps been of interest to me, and they have suggested something else as being of further interest, similar subject matter, or just a book they have enjoyed. I have never been able to force myself to enjoy something simply because it is recommended by other people, or because it is a best seller and on the New York Times list for weeks or months at a stretch. There was a time when I loved poetry, but less the classical and more small press, unknown authors. Nowadays I’m not in that realm at all. I read a lot of science fiction as a child – back when it was difficult for me to get to a library in the vacation and I was reading a book a day – but find it difficult to get into now. If I were to try reading Dune again, or The Worm Ouroboros, even Day of the Triffids, I wouldn’t be able to get the same level of interest back that I had as a younger reader. Slap a massive tome about the history of the Silk Roads into my hands, or a study of the original ghetto in Venice, and you’ll have my undying lack of attention while I read them. At the same time I did enjoy Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter, billed as a metaphorical fugue on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carroll and very mathematical indeed, which surprised me as I really am not a numbers person. I can work out the change I should be getting when buying a coffee and cakes, but have never managed to balance my bank account, let alone square a hypotenuse.
It’s not just that cursive is no longer taught in schools, but handwriting in general, and even the intricacies of the English language, are succumbing to a general dumbing down of students. To a certain extent I can understand the change away from teaching the wonderful art of letter writing, even though I regret it deep in my soul, as new technologies make pen and paper letters a thing for the more romantic-minded old fogies such as myself, and all business letters being written by specialists in the legal department of a company rather than those who sign their name on the bottom line, but there are too many other things being pushed out at the same time. Music, I am told, is disappearing from the school curriculum in some areas, and anything where a child is taught how to think for themselves, how to work their own way to the solution of a problem is anathema to many schools. Creative writing disappears just as creative thinking is banned, and articles appear in the literary press on how the day of the literary novel is passed because no one can write of deep feelings any more, no one can describe, no one can see and transcribe their feelings on paper any more. Pulp fiction, those penny-dreadfuls of the Fifties brought in when paper was scarce, are the future; just in a more expensive package, and with better sales advertising, slicker marketing.
People can no longer write cursive, let alone a more normal hand writing style, and they have to be taught how to read older works because the script is so foreign to their eyes, to what their mind can accept. A few years ago, when I was working on the history of the house I wished to buy, I amazed the civil servant at the land registry by reading a document in old German script (Sütterlin) without hesitation or a mistake. Had it been an older form of hand writing, Sütterlin was first developed and taught from about 1915 to 1941 in Germany, then I would have had a problem too, although the main form of printed script used up until the end of the Forties – Fraktur – is as easy to read as Old Gothic and some of the more formal, flowery scripts used by monks and in early works from Gutenberg. Another problem, certainly as far as I am concerned, is that people can no longer hold a conversation using the written word. Many people find it almost impossible to put their thoughts and opinions down on paper – even in a private journal – and budding letter writing friendships tend to die a death because of this. They cannot even describe, in writing, a book they have just finished reading – which also leads me to suspect that the book was a waste of time if it left no impression whatsoever – a film they have seen, a conversation held. What a wonderful time to be alive.
There is going to be a demand for people with water purification qualifications and knowledge in the future. You could possibly have come across the – limited circulation – news stories recently about Cape Town, where clean, fresh water is running out, despite the city being on the coast and having the potential for water purification to alleviate the problem. Then something few people can have missed, there is the water problem in Flint, Michigan, which is so serious that it even has its own Wikipedia page, but not serious enough that concerted efforts are made to change what has been a problem for many years. What fascinated me about the Flint story from the very start was how short-sighted some people can be when it comes to the health and safety of others: the change to water being taken from the River Flint rather than bought from Detroit and supplied from Lake Huron brought a saving of five million dollars with it. The repairs and replacement of all the corroded pipes, which has not yet been completed and will probably need at least another year, will cost a minimum of fifty-five million. Had someone done their math… or used their brain with a small portion of commonsense and humanity, things might be different, and a few people might still be alive today.
Like you, and I think I might have mentioned this is my first letter, I do not judge people according to their past – which is one of the reasons I have no problems, and even prefer, writing to people who have been incarcerated – but I do take it into account. I do not mean in a bad way, but the experiences and actions of a person go towards their make-up, their character, the way they will react to some subjects in a conversation and how open they are likely to be towards others. Many people write that their actions, when bad or anti-social, do not define them, but fail to accept that something has happened which will be a part of them for the rest of their lives. We do not see, of course, all of the background to an action, t a crime, to whatever has happened which has placed them in their present situation, and that is why I do not judge. Going beyond this, we all do things in our lives to earn a living, to manage to get from one day to the next, because we are in a group which expects it, because we don’t see the consequences of our actions. All of these things go to make a person individual, interesting, a unique record of a secret, personal life. If someone cannot accept this is another person, then I do not believe they should be so arrogant as to accept all the things they have done in their life. And I also do not believe that they should be so arrogant as to judge someone, whilst enjoying – even if in private – what that person has been involved in or created. I just need to take a glance through some of the names from the political arena which have made the news recently: on the one side demanding certain standards and refusing certain services to women, as one example, such as abortion whilst paying their own girlfriend, who their wife does not necessarily know exists, to rid herself of their own love child.
It is also a problem, as far as your past is concerned, that you will either find people approaching you with less than good intentions, or those who wish to reform you and bring you back on the straight and narrow path through life to a shining light on top a mountain somewhere, and eternal whatever. The abuse I have seen directed at some people in the public eye – the wonders of being able to appear anonymous on the internet – reminds me of what some people can be like when they believe they will get away with it, when they know they’ve found a weakened victim to exploit. I am one of those strange people who tends to pose very few questions indeed, which unnerves some of my correspondents, but lets the conversation run according to whatever interests at the moment, whatever has been written in a letter which I am replying to. It’s not as if we’re on a date and need to know how far the other person is prepared to go, or anything else about them which could change the manner in which we speak to them, how we handle them, whether we make a proposition or not. Letter writing is a slow and enjoyable exploration which no one person leads, which all parties tend to flow and influence with their own input and ideas. I do not consider your past, what I know of it, t be a bad thing, merely a life lived. Is it worth exploration? Perhaps, but since it is, was, your life it would be up to you to reflect on memories, good and bad moments, lessons learned, friendships and all the other things that go hand in hand with what we recall from our past.
What I will say, though, is that I’m not the sort of person who gives up on someone else simply because they have a different upbringing, a different lifestyle, a different set of values. It is impossible to form an opinion about anything unless you are prepared to listen to all sides and weigh them up, one against the other. Anything else is prejudice, and not worth a second glance. When someone writes me a letter – or sends me a mail – I answer it, and hope for a further answer to what I have written. It is possible for two people with dissimilar interests, religion, political beliefs to hold a conversation with few problems, if they are fair and allow the other their opinion without abuse. We all have our reasons for what we do, what we believe in, and it is up to us to learn, to decide whether we wish to change our opinion because of some new information we might have gained. The best debates, and I have been involved in many, for me are those where you don’t just talk, but you listen too. The worst are those where it is clear that someone is listening for a break in the flow of words so that they can talk, rather than listening to the words and taking in their meaning.
Finally, since we are fast approaching the end of the page, some of my reasoning. I write letters because I love this form of communication, but I also appreciate that there are other means by which people can stay in touch, can build up friendships. Not everyone enjoys putting pen to paper, and I can accept that. This is, however, my way and a tried and trusted way which, having considered many other possibilities, I wish to stick to. I have, however, absolutely no objection to receiving electronic mail, and have other friends in many walks of life who write to me through a mail system rather than through the postal system. That is their way, and that is fine by me. I will write my old-fashioned letter back to them unless it is a business conversation which requires speed. So I am more than happy to receive a mail from you through your chosen mail service – of which I am also a member – whenever and if you wish to write. I will then sit down, usually on the same day, and write a reply through the postal system.
There are other reasons for this aside from the fact that I prefer the old-fashioned writing method. I do not have anything against electronic mail in principle, at least, not as much as I have against smart phones and people who go through life without lifting up their heads and looking to see whether it is day or night. By writing a letter on paper and sending it through the postal system I am slowing the whole process down, not to be awkward, but because I have the experience of losing friends too quickly otherwise. A constant stream of mails back and forth does two things: it exhausts the number of things to that can be written about very quickly indeed, since we are not facing one another and able to react and reply as in a normal conversation which includes body language and so much more; it forces a certain restriction on both sides, not just the pressure to reply, but the pressure to give up other activities and be there when a mail comes in so that a reply can be given immediately.
This immediacy does not apply to everyone, but there are some people, and I have had a few writing to me, who check to see whether you’ve received a mail shortly after sending it if they don’t get an immediate reply. I also go out a great deal and explore the world, giving me much more to write about as well as a certain Quality Time for me. This letter would have been too long for your chosen mail service, and it is not one of my longest. Cheaper and quicker, yes, but too long and, believe it or not, receiving a physical letter has a completely different feeling to receiving an electronic mail. If you are happy with my writing old-fashioned letters, I am happy replying to your electronic mails. Deal?