Our society is losing an important method of communication and as it turns out, a potentially profitable one in select circumstances.
It’s the art and practice of writing letters.
“Imagine…you have stumbled on the secret of life, aka the double helix structure of DNA. Thrilled, you pen a letter to your young son outlining the discovery and concluding with, ‘Lots of love, Daddy’,” wrote Gillian Tett, an award winning assistant editor for the Financial Times based in the U.S.
What would a letter, if it actually existed, be worth? This is not an academic question, Ms. Tett wrote in her editorial page column last Saturday. British scientist Francis Crick actually wrote such a letter to his son 60 years ago. It begins, according to Ms. Tett, “Jim Watson and I have probably made a most important discovery,” and goes on to describe the discovery as “something beautiful…by which life comes to life.”
The heirs of Professor Crick recently sold the letter at auction. Christie’s estimated before the sale that the document would be worth about $800,000, Ms. Tett reported.
It sold for $6 million to a mystery bidder.
Doctor Crick’s research partner, American scientist James Watson, PhD, now 85 and a resident of New York City, was undoubtedly thrilled. The sale set a very high monetary bar if, or when, his heirs decide to sell his papers, which include an early manuscript of the pioneering book The Double Helix, replete with his editing marks in the margins.
Focusing on Prof. Crick’s $6 million letter, Ms. Tett wondered what the seven-page document would have been worth if it were a mere email. “If historians look back at 2013 in 60 years time, they will see an age when the volume of communication surged in scale, but they will see a period when communication was so fleeting and ubiquitous, it lost its value. Nobody is likely to pay $6 million for a tweet.”
This wasn’t the only big price paid for a letter of historical significance, Ms. Tett reported. A letter Abraham Lincoln wrote to some school children sold for $3.4 million in 2008. A letter Albert Einstein wrote to President Roosevelt warning of the threat of nuclear weapons sold for the equivalent of $3.4 million.
“Something precious is being lost amid this tsunami of computer code,” says Ms. Tett. With all its advantages, the digital revolution is threatening the art and practice of writing letters.
I doubt the $6 million price tag for the Crick letter will reverse the trend, but I can always hope. I am of the school of thought that letter writing helps define who we are as people.
Note: Last week I wrote in this space that texting was replacing thank you notes, many filled with strange acronyms that require a dictionary to decipher unless, of course, you are under the age of 30.
For the young among us who would like to experience what actual letter writing is like, I strongly recommend George H.W. Bush’s wonderful book, All the Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings.