The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox

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9781416576747: The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox

There’s no question that e-mail is an incredible phenomenon that represents a kind of cultural and technological advancement. The first e-mail was sent less than forty years ago; by 2011, there will be 3.2 billion e-mail users. The average corporate worker now receives upwards of two hundred e-mails per day. The flood of messages is ceaseless and follows us everywhere.

In The Tyranny of E-mail, John Freeman takes an entertaining look at the unrelenting nature of correspondence through the ages. Put down your smart phone and consider the consequences. As the toll of e-mail mounts, reducing our time for leisure and contemplation and separating us in an unending and lonely battle with the overfull inbox, John Freeman—one of America’s preeminent literary critics—enters a plea for communication that is more selective and nuanced and, above all, more sociable.

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About the Author:

JOHN FREEMAN is an award-winning writer and book critic who has written for numerous publications, including The New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, and The Wall Street Journal. Freeman won the 2007 James Patterson PageTurner Award. He is the editor-in-chief of Granta and  lives in New York City.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

Words in Motion

I watched a letter that I had written start off on its journey
in a howling snowstorm, high in the mountains of Finnish
Lapland. The postman was a gnarled little Lapp and his means
of transport a flat-bottomed sleigh, drawn by a reindeer....
After three or four hours and perhaps a spill or two in the snow,
it would travel five hours by bus and then a day and a night
by train to the Finnish capital. From there it would go by ship,
steaming in the channel cut by an ice-breaker through the frozen
sea to Sweden. Swedish postmen would convey it across their
country and put it on an ocean liner. On arrival in New York,
the United States Post Office would take charge, and finally an
American rural postman would deliver my letter on his rounds
in a small Midwestern village. I had paid the equivalent of
fourpence for all this service. What is more, I had paid the
Finnish Government alone, not the Swedes or Americans.
-- LAURIN ZILLIACUS, From Pillar to Post: The Troubled History of the Mail


The success of mail in modern society is, to this day, something of a marvel. By our simply dropping a letter into an iron box, an object we have held and inscribed with words that only we can form may travel around the globe in a matter of days. On such a journey mail has been carried by foot and by horse, by chariot and by pigeon; it's journeyed by balloon and by bicycle, by train, truck, steamboat, pneumatic tubes, airplane, and even missiles. If a thing can move, it has probably carried mail. Bringing this service to people without a title took thousands of years. Roads had to be carved into fields and blasted through mountain passes; durable, cheap writing utensils had to be invented and men and women organized into labor forces. To this day, the U.S. Postal Service is the second-largest employer of civilian labor in America, with nearly 800,000 employees (compared with 181,000 in the UK, 160,000 in Germany, and 100,000 in France).

In ancient civilizations, mail was haphazard for most people -- a luxury, a stab in the dark. So the act of sending and receiving a letter was a momentous occasion. Without the highly efficient systems we possess today, letters were delivered informally, through friends or acquaintances planning to travel to a certain location. Along the way the messenger might be robbed, injured, or killed; the absence of a reply was so common that many ancient letters contained complaints about the failure of the recipient to respond to a missive. It would be hard to blame the messenger, though.

There was very little letter technology. Although clay envelopes dating back to several thousand years b.c. have turned up in Turkey, the paper envelope is a recent invention. Until the late 1800s, schoolchildren in America learned to fold a letter so that it didn't need one. The stamp, which came into being in India and England in the 1840s, is new, too, along with paper (which appeared in 3500 b.c.), to say nothing of pens (an invention of Egypt in 3000 b.c.) and zip codes (first used in the United States in 1963). Prior to all these developments, people addressed letters on the back of the missive itself or right on top of the text. Seals were important for this reason: they were a stamp of authenticity.

The history of mail is a tale of how, with the invention of postal systems and the democratization of their use, words began to knit more than just nations together. Words written by hand, then carried by the saddlebags of travelers, kept friendships alive and gave shape and texture to the daily experiences -- and the thoughts -- of people who wanted to communicate but were not within speaking distance of one another. In arcing across that gap, letters and mail helped create (and remind us of ) another gap -- the one between the inside and outside world. "It's separation that weaves the intrinsic world," Hélène Cixous writes of letters. "A fine, tender separation...like an amniotic membrane that lets the sound of blood pass through."

Mail has been the world's most important artery for transmitting our pulse across that separation. As words and then language were democratized and mail extended to larger parts of the world's population, that sound has become louder, syncopated, cacophonous. Governments and businesses have listened in; tricksters and thieves have posed as lovers and bearers of good news. Our current age is not the first in which people struggled to keep their inbox tidy. And speed, that perpetual, beckoning messenger, threatens to obliterate the very thing -- distance -- that made us want to write to begin with. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. First, the mail just had to get there.

The Pillar of Empires

In the beginning, mail was a tool of a few -- of governments and militaries and kings. It's not hard to fathom its usefulness. A well-organized postal service knit enormous stretches of land together; it announced news of battles lost and won, collected intelligence, and delivered the occasional expression of courtly love. Not surprisingly, all the major early empires had some system of carrying letters from one place to the next: the Aztecs, the Incas, the Chinese, the Assyrians, the Romans, the Mauryans. In most cases only government officials could use the service. This was not an enormous deprivation, as most citizens could not read or write. In very important circumstances, they could have letters written for and read to them.

In the sixth century B.C., the Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great boasted a well-organized relay service that could carry mail at a rate of up to a hundred miles a day. The man carrying the message would ride from one post to the next, where he would trade his tired horse for a fresh one, rest, then continue upon his journey. Herodotus sang this system's praises when he wrote in the histories a comment now inscribed on the Farley Post Office Building in New York City: "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."

The Persians' mail service, like so many, was not a benign network, however. It was a tool for making war and controlling an expanding population, upon whom the postal carriers spied and reported back. All the emperors did it. Kublai Khan had more than ten thousand postal stations and some fifty thousand horses at his disposal -- and the people who lived near the postal stations learned to fear the carriers. Caliph Abu Jafar Mansur, who ruled the Arabian Empire in the eighth century, expressed mail's military importance most bluntly: "My throne rests on four pillars and my rule on four persons: a blameless cadi [chief justice], an energetic chief of police, an honest minister of finance, and a faithful postmaster, who gives me true information about everything." In 860, the Islamic caliphate boasted 930 post stations.

News of military victories traveled via these early official postal systems, as did instructions for slaughter. As Laurin Zilliacus reminds us, the Book of Esther describes "the use of posts to order the slaughter of the Jews throughout Persian-ruled territory, and then the swift sending of the counter-order that saved them and turned the tables on their persecutors."

"And he wrote in the name of the king Ahasueres and sealed it with the king's ring, and sent letters by posts on horseback," goes the verse, "riding on swift steeds that were used in the king's service, bred of the stud." All of the books of the New Testament, save the Gospels, are written in the form of letters.

It was not always horses doing the carrying, however. The Arabs later pioneered the use of pigeons. The Greek city-states reserved some of their loftiest poetry for the mind-boggling feats of their athlete-runners. They were known as Hemerodromes and were often called into service when a very important message was to be delivered. Philonides, the courier and surveyor for Alexander the Great, once ran from Sicyon to Elis -- 148 miles -- in a day. Wealthy families had stables of runners, and since nearly all the work was taken care of by their slaves, citizens of leisure had little to do but share their thoughts and gossip in letters to one another. Not surprisingly, a huge volume of correspondence was produced during the height of Greek civilization.

Augustus Caesar established one of the most impressive ancient postal services. It relied upon the Roman Empire's superior road network, with stopping-off points -- or post houses -- where couriers could rest and trade horses. It is for this reason that the word "post" comes from the Latin positus, meaning "fixed," or "placed." Mail traveled by horse and chariot, and the postmen of the era wore feathers in their caps, signifying speed. The service was eventually expanded to the general public -- those who could write and afford it. When the Roman Empire fell, the network collapsed, and organized communication throughout western Europe disappeared with it.

Filling the Gap Where Governments Leave Off

Guilds, trading companies, feudal lords, and marauding armies maintained private messaging systems after the fall of the Roman Empire, but only the Catholic Church possessed anything approaching the organization of the service Caesar had run from Rome. During the medieval period apostolic and pastoral letters "circulated doctrinal rulings, decisions of Episcopal synods, temporal and political matters," as University of California professor Charles Bazerman has written. The growing orders of monks also kept in touch through lay brothers traveling from one monastery to the next, trips that could take as long as several months, carrying scrolls called rotulae, an early, low-tech version of a Listserv. A scroll would leave a central monastery with simply, say, a list...

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