She describes herself, this friend of mine, as an 86-year-old with impaired hearing, impaired mobility and a severely restricted social life. But after her family gave her a computer for her 85th birthday, life began changing. In her ninth decade, she discovered to her delight that she and e-mail were made for each other.
She found it so convenient -- physically much easier than paper mail, less intrusive than the phone -- that she was soon in steady touch with her large family and many friends. As she told me recently (in an e-mail), "I get and send hundreds, and this is no exaggeration, hundreds of letters a week." One reason is that she's created a newsletter to connect members of her mother's family across North America. "Most of them didn't even know each other when I started, and all of them are ecstatic about this new network of cousins." That family circle now has more than 60 members, and her apartment in Toronto is the electronic crossroads for all of them.
This requires hours of joyful labour a day. "It has been something like a career for me. I couldn't live without it." It turns out that, as with many intelligent and vigorous people who haven't held a formal job in many years, a career was what she was missing.
When scholars write the social history of e-mail, they'll tell stories about families rediscovered, romances started, new beginnings made and an infinity of personal transformations inspired. E-mail has quickly worked itself into the fabric of life for 225 million people around the world, and it's turned out to be much more than a convenience. Like all communications media, it works changes in the lives of those who use it.
Young people won't find my 86-year-old friend's experience as remarkable as I do; for the young, e-mail is part of the landscape. I know a couple who so much take it for granted that they announced their forthcoming wedding by e-mail, in the process demonstrating that one advantage of this system is equity of information. No one heard the news first, which can sometimes be an issue; parents and siblings all received the letter at precisely the same nanosecond.
For that couple, e-mail has lodged itself in daily life, as the telephone did when it spread in the 1920s. It often replaces the phone as a way to make appointments and share routine information. One of its great advantages, of course, is that it doesn't ring and you can answer when you get around to it. People complain about "spam," the unsolicited advertising that appears in their electronic mailboxes. It may indeed be annoying, but it's far better than the pestilential telemarketers who phone your house as you're sitting down to dinner.
If the young find e-mail routine, I haven't even begun to lose my sense of wonder. I speak as a time traveller from the age of carbon paper and the manual typewriter (which I once stupidly vowed never to give up). It still astonishes me, as it astonishes many teachers, that e-mail has revived the art of letter writing among young people. Many of them (the evidence suggests) maintain tighter connections with far-away friends than earlier generations could even imagine.
One reason is the casual style of e-mail. In the old days, a letter to someone living in Vietnam or Iceland would have to be a "real" letter and might take a while to compose. But the conventions of e-mail say a message can be as short as the writer chooses. On the other hand, there are those (including some of my correspondents, and sometimes me) who compose a lengthy, detailed letter, print it out and read it over before transmitting it.
In every generation people mourn the death of letter writing (our literary culture enjoys nothing more than signing the death certificate of an art form). Decades ago, reviewers discussing collections of letters felt they had to say that there would be few such books in the future because the hurry of modern life had killed the habit. But as those reviews were appearing, people were still busy writing letters. In the years that followed, good collections kept appearing -- like the correspondence of publisher Jack McClelland last year. Letter writing didn't die, it just became a minority taste. Now it's regained much of its popularity. In 20 or 30 years, people will be reading books of e-mails (whether they'll read them in the form of paper books is another question). Incidentally, anyone seeking that kind of immortality should be warned to keep hard copies of their letters on paper; disc memory is unstable and unreliable, and may even be unreadable on the equipment of the future.
Newspaper columnists are among the many whose working lives have been improved by e-mail. One result isn't entirely enjoyable, though no doubt it's good for the soul: A columnist who makes a factual error will learn about it, from three or four people, by 10:30 a.m. The change in ordinary reactions from readers is enormous. In my case, a column that would have drawn no letters in the postal age now draws half a dozen; and a column that would have provoked half a dozen now brings in 15 or 20. (I think my record is 53, for a column about Michael Coren.) Many come from far away, and as a result I've exchanged specialized information with people in Buenos Aires, Tokyo and Siena. Something else, for which I have no explanation: E-mail correspondents are brighter, more likely to expand on an issue than simply react. And the nutcases who write postal mail to newspapers appear not to have discovered e-mail.
Andy Rooney, the resident grouch on 60 Minutes, recently brought out a book of his letters. "One of the good things in life is getting a personal letter," he said in an ad in The New York Times. He went on to complain that he doesn't get many of them in the mail anymore because "They've been replaced by the telephone, the form letter, and now e-mail. Too bad." What a fool! Admittedly, he makes a living finding things to complain about, and is therefore licensed to demonstrate blind stupidity from time to time. But there are times when he abuses the privilege.