The digital love letters of lockdown: why You’ve Got Mail is back on millennial screens “封城”時期的數字情書:《電子情書》何以重回千禧一代視野

By Susannah Goldsbrough 蘇珊娜·戈茲布拉夫

“I hear nothing, not even a sound on the streets of New York, just the beat of my own heart. I have mail. From you.”

The silence on today’s streets is more likely to be caused by a pandemic-induced lockdown than Meg Ryan’s adrenaline-raised heartbeat. Nevertheless, the opening lines of Nora Ephron’s 1998 rom-com seem to be resonating: the film’s arrival on Netflix this month has prompted a wave of nostalgic re-watching.

Millennial taste-maker Dolly Alderton declared on Twitter: “You’ve Got Mail is a perfect screenplay, there is not one word that isn’t perfect” – and received a burst of general agreement.

So why does this tale of an unlikely, email-fuelled romance between the owner of an independent children’s bookshop (Ryan) and the tycoon who presides over a Barnes & Noble-esque chain (Hanks) speak to our lockdown plight?

Two New Yorkers who met in a digital chat room exchange long, intimate messages while knowing virtually nothing about each other. Their professional animosity is offset by their digital intimacy, but not the kind that dating-app addicts would recognise.

The emails give the relationship meaning, not the other way around. And since Ryan’s character finds so much to enjoy in the lexicon of Pride and Prejudice, it seems unfair to use such an unromantic term as email. These are digital love letters.

This explains why lonely people across the world right now, walled away from their friends and lovers, are watching You’ve Got Mail. I ask one friend why she has started writing to the boyfriend she hasn’t seen since lockdown began. “I miss talking over dinner,” she replies. Letters have proved the best approximators of conversations that stretch and bubble in unpredictable directions. “It’s like hearing her think,” says another. “And that’s about as close as you can get.”

Another friend wrote a letter to his ex after watching Normal People, the BBC’s hit adaptation of Sally Rooney’s story of first love; he decided, however, not to send it. It was “remorseful, nostalgic and completely overwrought,” he admits, “and so clearly about me processing things rather than having anything worth communicating.”

But this is a truth about letters in general: they’re always more about the writer than the recipient. And in lockdown, that’s precisely their charm. More permanent than a phone call, more physical than a Zoom, they offer themselves up as little proxy pieces of the sender, ink-smudged or pencil-furry, crisp or yellowing. You can hold them close, as you can’t hold the one to whom they’re addressed.

And beyond the individual connections, there’s comfort in the knowledge that even as the world freezes for this long, long moment, as cars sit idle in driveways and the sky is emptied of planes, the post is still being delivered. Some things, it seems, never change.

One friend is a prolific postcard writer. She describes the pleasures of a postcard’s enforced briefness, the inevitable slide from the generic greeting, in large loopy letters, to the cramped scramble at the end, when the writer is suddenly caught by a thought they really want to share and they have to squish it into the dwindling space.

So much of Hanks and Ryan’s digital letters feel like this: sudden thoughts that catch them and demand to be shared, random but precise. They write to each other of bagel shops and butterflies, of Joni Mitchell and grief. The scope of a letter is small and specific, but that is what makes it intimate.

“People say things in writing that they would never say over text or even face to face,” muses my postcard philosopher. “A letter sits you down and makes you acknowledge what you most want to say to that person, with no assurance of reply. Every letter is a profession of love.”