Growing up, I used to relish every visit to the stationery shop.
I'd spend hours browsing through row after row of colored pens, pencils, erasers, sharpeners and writing pads. I collected the prettiest scented letter writing pads, and would make my dad promise to buy letter pads from countries he traveled to for work.
I would then painstakingly choose the "right" writing paper to use, matching designs to personalities of penpals I often wrote to overseas...having penpals were the craze in the 1980s.
My letter-writing days continued into university. I studied in Australia, so letters were the best way to communicate with my family and friends back home. International calls weren't exactly cheap. E-mail and the Internet were just starting to emerge, but weren't pervasive yet.
I enjoyed writing letters, and I mean those that you write with a pen, not keyboard. I enjoyed receiving them and would gladly make the daily trip to the mailbox at my university hostel, in anticipation of hearing from home.
You could tell so much from handwritten letters. They personified the person who wrote them. You could tell, for instance, if the writer was particularly passionate about a topic because the ink would be darker when he wrote about it, and the paper would show a deeper imprint.
Once, instead of writing, I printed a letter to a friend because I thought he might appreciate not having to spend time trying to decipher my atrocious penmanship. He chided me for doing so: "Don't you dare do it again. It's so impersonal!"
The words may have been the same but somehow, handwritten sentences--however illegible--showed that you cared enough for a friend to spend the time and effort to sit down, write a few pages worth of your personal thoughts, put them in an envelope, lick a stamp, and then take a walk to the local post office or letter box just to send it off.
I promised my friend he would receive only ink-smudged notes from that day on.
But, that was 1996. Today, I doubt if that friend would reprimand me again for mailing him notes printed in Times New Roman. And the last time I handwrote a letter was, hmmm, not in this century.
Hotmail, Yahoo, MySpace, Twitter, Facebook...who needs to handwrite anymore when you can say what you need to say in 160, 140 characters, or less, and have that message relayed to hundreds of people simultaneously, instantly.
Citing figures from Nielsen Mobile, a Time article this week reported that the average U.S. mobile teen now sends or receives an average of 2,899 text messages per month. "With teens, the act of picking up a phone and calling someone is dropping away," Christopher Collins, senior analyst at Yankee Group, said in the article.
And it's not just teens. Once, a friend and I were furiously exchanging a series of text messages debating where we should have dinner that evening. It wasn't until around the 16th SMS message that a thought suddenly hit me. So I dialed his number, and as soon as he answered the call, I quipped: "Now, isn't this easier?"
With the advent of the Internet, e-mail, social sites and what not, we sometimes forget to stop, and smell the scented paper.
Letters made you reflect, and think about what you want to say. With text messages, Tweets and Facebook updates, it's too easy to say the first thing that comes to mind. That's all fine and dandy if you're in a cheery mood, but not so if you're feeling peeved.
A recent article in Australia's The Sunday Telegraph noted how e-mail and text messages have even replaced handwritten love letters. Anne Hollonds, CEO of Relationships Australia, said these "love mails" can actually be more romantic than handwritten notes. Hollonds said: "The interesting thing is the contact is much more frequent so when you're madly in love you might be texting every five minutes, you're constantly checking your phone for a text. So you know they're thinking of you right now, and that's a real buzz when you know someone's thinking about you."
So, I suppose, it ain't all bad. Besides, there really is no turning back to a pre-Internet era, is there?
And so, I guess I must now mourn the death of handwritten letters, as well as what's left of my penmanship. I'll take some comfort in the presence of stationery shops and gift stores selling Hallmark cards, because that means there's still a market out there for pens, pencils and notepads.
And some of us can take comfort that "Dear John" letters can be done more painlessly, since you'll only have a limited 160 characters to explain why you're sorry, along with an abridged "it's not you, it's me" spiel.