Writing letters was quite common during my grandparents time when telephones weren’t ubiquitous and very few households had it. They wrote letters to each other to apprise each other of the happenings in their lives. They speak very fondly of those days, of waiting for a letter. They didn’t see each other for months and it was letters that connected them to each other, bridging the distance effortlessly. Look at us with our smartphones, connected on multiple platforms but still there’s something missing. In saying too much too often we are perhaps missing the point.
We are surrounded by words, we use words to connect with others on social media and on the phone. How many people write letters (=epistles) or for that matter long emails in the age of WhatsApps, which is the opposite of instant and needs some time to be responded to. Letters are the epitome of personal. There’s something about the act of writing letters that makes me feel like I’m not a part of this dog-eat-dog world or that I belong to a different time than the one I am living in (my sister says it’s a way of keeping illusions intact and delaying it being shattered by the real world).
Somehow a letter seems less intrusive but more revealing (if you know what I mean you have penpals) than a conversation when you only know the person online. It gives us the liberty to shape and build a narrative we want to present (quite like the image we create on social media) while being true to the self. Online or offline we are always telling our life stories. Also, there is the romance of it, how a letter feels in your hand. It is far more real than an email could ever be. Internet offers us many chances of finding like-minded people and connecting with them but texts can never be as personal as a letter.
The people I write to and who write to me, we have formed a unique bond that surprisingly goes beyond words. Even if communication happens via other channels the letters remain special.
Seeing the handwriting of someone you have never met is very personal but nobody thinks about it because of the way things have always been. Handwriting is a practical tool to write answers and get marks.
Writing to someone you have never met in real life teaches you to have faith beyond what you see. Pen pals or email pals allow us to escape the tedium of reality without completely endangering ourselves. We think the person on the other side of the table can’t really hurt us. Apparently this is both naïve and idiotic. It can be foolhardy and dangerous if the person on the other side isn’t honest about who he or she is. And finding out later is nothing short of betrayal. Count yourself lucky if it doesn’t result in heartbreak.
Do people write letters in this day and age? They are dying tribe but they do exist. A lot of trust, patience and faith in the universe is required to sustain this habit. In life we get hurt. Our trust is destroyed by people who call themselves our friends (or acquaintances). So how do we sustain such a connection with so many unknowable variables? Is it by believing in the persona created by words but nothing to corroborate the fact in real life? Or something else? It works because we want to make it work and believe what the person on the other side says is true. Other than that, getting letters in the post is a feeling which cannot be described in words.
Did you have a pen pal? What has been your experience like?
Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares is an epistolary novel co-authored by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. Their earlier collaborations include Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Naomi and Eli’s No Kiss List, which caters to teens, just like this one. The cover was appealing but a bit too cutesy for its own good. Heart shaped snowflakes really? But don’t let it deceive you. It is not just a Christmas romance though it is set during Christmas in Manhattan, when there is snow in the air and good cheer.
It is alternatively narrated by Lily (written by Rachel Cohn) and Dash (written by David Levithan). Dash and Lily write dares and thoughts in a red Moleskine notebook which Dash finds next to Lily’s favourite author (which also happens to be his) while perusing through the books in Strand Book Store (yes the one and only). The idea was devised by Langston (named after Langston Hughes), Lily’s older brother so that she finds someone to share her Christmas excitement with (she loves Christmas like only children can and she is not a child so that does make it a little odd) as he will be busy with his boyfriend and their parents will be out of town.
Lily is a shy teenager, good at football and overprotected by her family. She does not fit in and has no friends at school though her lovable extended family more than make up for it. Her cousin Mark and Great Aunt Ida make for great secondary characters and play a significant role in safeguarding the notebook.
Lily’s notebook is picked up by Dash who hates the idea of Christmas. He is an introvert and comfortable in his own company. A child of divorce, he’s used to taking care of himself and guards his solitude fiercely. Dash’s best friend Boomer, is overexcited and overeager (for his age) not unlike a toddler on a sugar rush providing us with many funny moments. I thought theirs would be an unlikely friendship but they complement each other well. Yin and Yang.
Through impossible dares Dash and Lily accept, designed to push themselves out of their comfort zones, they see new sides to themselves. They grow together and confide their innermost longings to each other in a notebook. Sharing a common ground with an anonymous if not nameless but faceless stranger can be a powerful connection. Would it have been better (read more acceptable) if they had done it face to face or had it been a conversation on the phone? It isn’t the mode of communication that matters but the connection. Or is it just plain idiocy trusting someone’s words, someone whom you have never seen or met, in this age of dishonesty? It’s Kali Yuga after all.
Here the the barriers in real everyday life appear to dissolve and the playing field is vast. I mean anyone could have picked up that notebook. It goes on to show how we box ourselves and allow others to pigeonhole us, put labels, when we can go beyond it and be so much more alive.
Lily and Dash are book nerds hence the usage of words isn’t what would constitute normal teenage banter. Nevertheless the writing is contemporary although you might feel out of your element (read bored) if you don’t share their love for words. Take a look at these lines:
“I particularly loved the adjective bookish, which I found other people used about as often as ramrod or chum or teetotaler.”
“I was horribly bookish, to the point of coming right out and saying it, which I knew was not socially acceptable.”
“We all just took the bookstore at its word, because if you couldn’t trust a bookstore, what could you trust?
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