Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


Anne Fadiman’s new collection of essays, At Large and at Small: Familiar Essays (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2007) includes her interesting essay entitled “Mail.” The essay is an interesting, personal glimpse into the nature of mail in our lives and how it has changed through the past few centuries.

Fadiman commences the essay by describing her memories of her father looking forward each day to the delivery of mail, both junk and the more interesting professional and personal mail. She then contrasts seeing how her father received his mail with that of how people used to receive mail in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Here she reminds us of something that might seem surprising; an individual living in a major urban area such as London would receive mail all day long, since it was the main form of communication for scheduling lunches, arranging meetings, and connecting to clients. For the mail lovers among us, this would be a truly hospitable environment.

There is the expectation each of us brings to the mailbox. As Fadiman describes both her father’s and her own hope, the “excitement of the treasure hunt is followed all too quickly by the glum realization that the box contains only four kinds of mail: 1) junk; 2) bills; 3) work; and 4) letters that I will read with enjoyment, place in a folder labeled ‘To Answer,’ and leave there for a geologic interval” (p. 118). This is an apt description, one capturing the sense many of us bring to the daily journey to the postal box. I must confess, however, that I am a lover of junk mail, especially catalogs. I love to browse through the mail, and I love the satisfaction of disposing quickly of the unwanted stuff; I get a sense of satisfaction, falsely I know, of having accomplished something when I toss out the debris.

Email has, of course, transformed our experience with mail. Fadiman describes her adoption of email, and how quickly she made the adjustment to it. She confesses how quickly after starting to use it, that she was “batting out fifteen or twenty e-mails in the time it had once taken me to avoid answering a single letter” (p. 120). Most of us have made similar adjustments. I was never a great letter writer, but I do keep up with my email, professionally and personally, although I often feel ever chained to it. I love a few days away from it, and I both dread getting back to it and discovering what good news there may be in it. In email I lack the same sense of pleasure from snail mail’s junk mail; spam mail clutters up my electronic mail boxes, but I have since learned to use quite effectively the delete button.

I worry about the legacy of documents I leave behind, as just one result of shifting from the personal letter to the electronic message. Fadiman lets us know what we might be missing when she describes her father’s own papers: “I also own my father’s old copper wastebasket, which now holds my empty Jiffy bags. Several times a day I use his heavy brass stamp dispenser; it is tarnished and dinged, but still capable of unspooling its contents with a singular smoothness. And my file cabinets hold hundreds of his letters, the earliest written in his sixties in small, crabbed handwriting, the last in his nineties, after he lost much of his sight, penned with a Magic Marker in huge capital letters. I hope my children will find them someday, as Hart Crane found his grandmother’s love letters in the attic” (p. 125). In this era of electronic communication, I still find myself acquiring old objects associated with the postal age. Just to my right as I write this is mounted on the wall a black lacquered tin container labeled in nineteenth century lettering “Bill Heads.” I use it to hold bills and other mail to be dealt with, as I still hold out from paying my bills online. I love the satisfaction of writing out a check, even if it costs a bit more to stamp and mail it out. Fifty years from now scholars will look for people like me to study, those who had one foot comfortably in both the digital age and what existed before.


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