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The paper chase

Pen and ink still speak louder than e-communiqués

By Alex Beam
Globe Staff / October 26, 2010

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I must confess, I have a low-threshold stationery fetish. About 10 years ago, I held in my hand a handwritten note from Jackie Kennedy to the poet Robert Lowell. It was thrilling. I think the paper was tinted light blue, but most memorable was the penmanship — old-school — and the half scallop shell at the top of the note card. The shell and the pineapple, two symbols of hospitality, often decorate note paper.

In her note, Jackie was thanking Lowell for sending her a book, and congratulated him for getting away during the holidays. In fact, Lowell was locked up, at McLean Hospital in Belmont. Unless the rules have changed, you can examine this same letter at Harvard’s Houghton Library, which is open to the public.

All this to say: Paper, yes. Electrons, no. With the so-called holiday season fast approaching, don’t you dare send me electronic “greetings’’ of any kind. I’ve had it with “e-vites,’’ “e-cards,’’ and their ilk. Five years ago, e-vites had an air of novelty and people actually responded to them. Now I ignore the few that manage to get past my spam filter. Wired magazine said it best: “Evite is great if you’re gonna party like it’s 1999.’’

Just how out of step is my tiresome, blow-up-the-Internet-and-leave-me-alone crankiness? Lizzie Post, the great-great-granddaughter of etiquette doyenne Emily Post, agrees with me. “I’ve never sent an e-vite, and I never will,’’ she told me by phone from the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vt. “I don’t like the fact that you can see who’s attending and who’s not. It’s like asking the host what kind of food he plans to serve.’’

As for holiday e-cards, “It’s a trend I haven’t seen emerge,’’ she says. Hallmark, which sells both electronic and paper greetings, says dead tree products outsell virtual cards, 20 to 1.

For reasons that will become clear, I called up my favorite stationer, Luke Pontifell of New York-based Thornwillow Press, to invite him to trash electronic communications of all kinds. Pontifell produces hand-printed note cards, customized invitations, and limited-edition books that I allow myself to buy when I am feeling flush. I noticed that he had recently inked a marketing pact with a high-end e-viter, Paperless Post. I was hoping to sow discord between the two ventures.

Pontifell doesn’t call his printing “old media’’; he calls it “ancient media.’’ “What we make is tangible in a much broader context of intangibleness,’’ he explains. He likens his hand-printed books to a violin, which he calls “just a wooden box. But it’s also an instrument for translating art. And beautiful books enhance the relationship between readers and texts. Our business is the relevance of object quality.’’

OK, OK. So let’s start dumping on Internet e-vites. Pontifell is adamant on the subject of hand-written thank-you notes and, say, wedding invitations. “If you write a note about a dinner you enjoyed, before going to bed, it says a lot more about the experience than typing out an e-mail. As for weddings, the invitations and the photo album may be the only things the couple can take away from the occasion, besides what one hopes are happy memories.’’

So what about paperless communications? Pontifell acknowledges the efficiencies of the Internet. He agrees that some communications, perhaps a wedding rehearsal invitation, or those annoying “Save the Date’’ notices, might be entrusted to the Web. He and I both admire the stark beauty of Paperless Post’s electronic invites. You must visit the website, paperlesspost.com, to see what we are talking about. “What they are doing is not the polyester equivalent of silk,’’ Pontifell says. “It’s a pure medium in and of itself.’’

James Hirschfeld is a cofounder of Paperless Post and, like Pontifell, was the librarian at Harvard’s Spee (rhymes with “twee’’) Club. “We wanted to create a beautiful way to communicate online,’’ he says, and they did. But what about the ephemerality of e-mail, which some people don’t even bother to read any more? “There is white noise and then there is what you actually want to read,’’ Hirschfeld says. “We want to be like that piece of mail in your mailbox, the envelope that’s heavy, and that you look for and that you want to open.’’

Here is the bottom line: Say it in writing — and I don’t mean e-writing — or don’t say it at all.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.