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The Future of the Postcard

Postcards seem particular to locale in the way that Slow Food is. Not incidentally, they are also slow. It takes effort to find and buy and write and stamp and mail one, and in that time a kind of alchemy occurs. The world is rescued from those who would shrink it to pocket size, to a snap on a Wall, and restored as a place of vastness, mystery, and an illimitable supply of bad visual puns.

Historians of Facebook and Twitter will be left to scrounge around the Internet for the fugitive relics of the present communication age. Not for them the scene upon scene of assorted wonders (the Golden Gate; Moroccan dancing boys; the Alps, as seen from Interlaken; Mount Fuji; the Andes; Titian’s Venus; two mandrills from the Cincinnati Zoo) preserved in the poet James Merrill’s postcard box. “Cards from all over,” Merrill wrote in a little-known poem titled “The Friend of the Fourth Decade.” “God! Those were the years.”

Merrill never threw a card away and neither do I. What my pals choose to do with the cards I send is no business of mine. If they preserve them, it cannot be because of anything profound in the messages, which are limited to the commonplace. I record the weather, mention the sights, and remember to note the price of things, as the diarist Samuel Pepys did.

I could do all of that in a tweet, of course, or on Facebook, or on an e-card sent from my phone. But then that would deprive my actual friends of the pleasure of coming across a souvenir in the mailbox, some goofy hula maiden or cheesy sunset scene, wedged among the Valu-Paks and unwelcome bills. It would also deprive me of a ritual increasingly important to me when I travel, an act of summoning up those I care for and closing the distance between us with that banal yet sincere declaration: “Wish you were here.”

Guy Trebay mailed his last postcard from Paris.

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