Here’s a title you will probably never see — “The World’s Great e-mails”

Lincoln's Letter to Mrs. Bixby

Executive Mansion,
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.
Dear Madam,–
I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.
I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.
I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,
A. Lincoln


I’ve had quite a trip down memory lane today.  First, I thought about a faded old volume which was faded and old when I bought it.  Then, I thought of where I bought it.  And then I thought of all that will be lost because of the arrival of modern technology.

Here’s the story. I opened my usual web sites this morning, and here was this wonderful article on
Hey, Mr. Postman:  Why e-mail can never replace the letter, by Megan Marshall.  She writes:
It never fails. No matter the place—cocktail party, lecture hall, classroom—whenever someone learns that I spent 20 years researching and writing a biography based on the handwritten letters of three 19th-century sisters, the question is promptly raised. How are biographies of 21st-century subjects going to get written when people today just don’t send letters—or, if they do, their letters take the evanescent form of e-mail?

So, as I read her article, I thought about my books in storage.  They’ve been there for quite a few years.  I need to sell them, but don’t want to part with them.  Most of them are from my full-time ministry days, but many are not overtly ministry related (I confess, my speaking is still a kind of “ministry,” and everything is related.  But that’s another discussion).

The volume that popped into mind was The World’s Great Letters.  I have no idea if my volume is the one pictured here – I know that the cover was different.  But I loved that book, and it is one that I need to rescue from storage and rediscover.  It was the book that introduced me to Lincoln’s letter to Mrs. Bixby.  Yes, I  know that some of the facts behind the letter are in dispute – but who cares.  It truly is one of the world’s great letters.

And thinking of the book brought to mind a wondrous oft-repeated experience from my Long Beach, California days.  There was this used book store in Long Beach – Acres of Books.  I swear the name was apt.  You could get lost in there, as I frequently did.  As much as I appreciate Half-Price Books in Dallas, there is simply nothing to compare to that beloved Acres of Books.  They had every kind of book imaginable – acres of them.  There is no telling how much (time, and money) I spent in that store – but I loved the hours I spent walking the aisles, sitting on the floor, even reading the clippings that they taped/glued/posted on the ends of rows of book shelves.  Acres of Books even has its own Wikipedia entry – sadly, it is now closed.

Now closed – which brings me to the unstoppable march of modern technology.  Not only has the internet threatened all of the book stores, new and used, it has threatened the very way we think and write.  For example, at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, California, scholars can pour over original manuscripts from renowned authors (including, among many others, the original manuscript of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography), seeing the very editing marks left by the authors themselves.  Today, in many instances, only a final draft survives.  With the click of a mouse, we hit save, and the editing decision, and example for future writers, is lost.

So, yes, the article was correct.  E-mail cannot replace the letter.  And I do not expect to ever read “The World’s Great E-mails,” much less “The World’s Great Tweets” or its companion volume, “The World’s Great Text Messages.”

I welcome the new technology.  It has helped in so many, many ways.  – But, also…what a loss.

3 thoughts on “Here’s a title you will probably never see — “The World’s Great e-mails”

  1. Tom Samson

    What a thought provoking blog entry! You took me down a road through nostalgic memories . . . for I too love the mind expansion and comfort afforded me through the books of the past.

    Yet I am reminded that today new thoughts and ideas come to me in a growing flood of information delivered through a wide range of electronic tools, e-mail being only one of many. How barren my mind would be if I did not constantly engage and feed it with browser and TV delivered words, images and sounds.

    Yet sometimes I yearn for the days when one could easily lose themselves in the story or thoughts shared by a gifted author on the pages of a bound book that rested easily in one’s hands. Oh wait . . . . those days are still here . . . . it’s just that those ideas spring forth from the surface of my Kindle!

    When one compares the annual volume of letters in Lincoln’s time to the daily volume of messages today it is easy to see how hard it will be for historians to glean the thought provoking gems generated today from the vast amounts of electronic stuff that gets retained without even thinking about that which has been erased from our electronic memory banks.

    When one looks back 10, 25, 50 or 100 years and reflects on the technological advances that have occurred, and then turns around and looks into the future 10, 25, 50 or 100 years about all you can conclude is that “We ain’t seen anything yet!”.

    Google and others have only begun to give us the tools that will surface in real time for all to see the messages with impact like President Lincoln’s letter to Mrs. Bixby. Oh wait again . . . . . CNN, FOX, Letterman, Oprah, and others do that all the time . . . will anything of consequences really get past the searching eyes of investigative reporters and electronic sleuths?

    Tom Samson

  2. Randy Mayeux Post author

    Tom, thanks for such a thoughtful and thorough comment/response.

    You are on the cutting edge in the use of technology. I think you are correct — “we ain’t seen anything yet!” And much of it will be very, very good.

    But some things will be lost… Such is reality!


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