I had the rare privilege yesterday of holding very very gently in my own hands an original letter from William Faulkner.
Email is a wonderful tool. It does not require you to remember to buy stamps, or, once you’ve finally bought the stamps, to remember where you stashed them, or once you’ve actually stamped the envelope, to make sure it’s slid into a mailbox before the end of the next calendar year.
But it can’t be touched. You can’t press the paper to your lips or heart or nose or wave it by your ear.
Even if you do print it out, the paper is fresh, unruffled. (Unless you’re one of those people, like me, who forgets to buy computer paper as well as stamps, and ends up printing on old slightly rumpled sheets salvaged from the bottom of a bookshelf.)
There is a magic, a wonder, that embues an original letter (even if sent from a less stellar correspondent than Faulkner). This magic derives not only from the fact that you, the recipient, can touch it, but (perhaps more importantly) that the sender has touched it. That the sender has actually handled it quite a bit, typed, perused, folded, enveloped it; that this same letter then traveled miles and miles jostling about with thousands of other completely separate but similarly handled missives. (A wondrous magic, that is, unless the sender happens to be the IRS. I got one of those yesterday too, and the magic was noticeably less palpable.)
I think suddenly about a recent highly publicized study, by Yuegang Zuo of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, that found that approximately 95% of U.S. currency bears traces of cocaine. Apparently, the contamination is so widespread because the fine powder is easily dispersed by sorting machines. Most bills—the ones that collected the drug through sorting—have very low levels of contamination, but some show a high concentration; Zuo posits that these are bills that were actually handled with the drug in some way; currency to which the drug stuck even after many sortings.
Then I think of the letter again, the fact that it had once been held in Faulkner’s hands, the same hands that typed out The Sound and the Fury, and Light in August, and Absolom Absolom!.… I’m suddenly certain that there must be Bill’s DNA all over the page (William Faulkner’s DNA!), and frankly, I’m glad I didn’t think of this at the time, or I might have leaned down and licked it.