What You Can Learn By Reading Lena Dunham’s Email

Monday marks the end of a strange experiment sending famous strangers’ private notes to your inbox. How everyday messages can become something much more rare

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© Mario Anzuoni / Reuters / REUTERS

For the last 20 weeks, stars like Lena Dunham, Kirsten Dunst, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have exposed their secrets, feuds, and dreams to the Internet, all through that most immediate yet lasting medium: email.

Through artist Miranda July’s digital art project “We Think Alone,” commissioned for Stockholm museum Magasin 3, subscribers have received a letter every Monday morning filled e-mails first written for private consumption by various artists and innovators. The emails come from the senders’ archives, some personal and some professional, often to recipients whose names have been deleted.

In “an email that gives advice,” we learned that the Mulleavy sisters, who co-design the fashion line Rodarte, like whiskey sours. In “an email about a dream,” 46-year-old novelist Etgar Keret admits he wishes his dreams were about “having sex with a lot of young women like everybody else in [his] age group.” In “an email that includes a picture of yourself,” we see a sexy schoolgirl picture that Lena Dunham sent to a lover, identified only as “E,” in 2007. And in “an email with I love you in it,” Abdul-Jabbar defends his fascination with the “Real Housewives” franchise.

All these quirky moments in the subjects’ lives add up to an often sweet, sometimes sour treatise on the way we communicate in the digital age. They make the famous feel familiar and transform a thing that we send everyday by the dozen into something valuable and rare.

Most of the participants have an artistic bent. Lena Dunham created the television show “Girls,” Kirsten Dunst is a movie star, Sheila Heti and Etgar Keret are both critically acclaimed novelists. Kate and Laura Mulleavy have been fashion sensations since they showed their first line in 2005. Lee Smolin is a theoretical physicist, but explains in “an angry email” that for a scientist, his interest in the arts is above-average. Catherine Opie is a major photographer and Danh Vo is a celebrated conceptual artist.

Spying on the e-mails of physicists and fashion designers can provide a rarefied view of how we e-mail today, banking on the smarts of this select group. But the beauty of the project is that their emails read so normally. If it weren’t for all the discussions of book contracts, you might not be able to guess at the senders’ professions.

They fire off letters (at an average of 17 words per message, the Mulleavy sisters win the brevity award). They make typos, send goofy links and place business orders. They apologize—a lot—often for missing events or leaving early. “My social anxiety really made itself apparent,” Dunham writes after bailing. “It isn’t my fault,” Keret writes when a missile strike on Tel Aviv means he can’t get away, “it is Bibi’s.”

Sometimes the rushed nature of emails creates sentences that are beautiful precisely because of the poor punctuation, spelling and grammar that email encourages. Consider artist Catherine Opie’s urging her niece to get tutoring: “I am not your parent I love you a ton.” Somehow, missing the “but I still” in the sentence’s middle, it’s lovelier than a more formal statement.

Emails like this one are common, perhaps because it’s an ideal medium for tough love: the writer has plenty of time to choose her words carefully, and is excused from seeing the recipient react in real time.

The facelessness of email seems to make it easier to be open and analytical. In an email to his friend and manager, Deborah Morales, Abdul-Jabbar shows his cards: “I’m just saying all this because Mother’s Day makes me miss my own mom and because if I say all this sentimental stuff you won’t be too mad at me for not being able to make it to brunch.”

Dunham, of course, climbs to the pinnacle of emotional transparency. She’s almost a parody of herself in these emails: “When I was little I left my journal out, open, for my parents to find (then hid behind the counter waiting for them to read it so I could be incensed.)” Of course you did, Lena.

Still she emerges as the most desirable pen pal, writing the kind of thoughtful, engaged notes you’d want your friend or lover to send. Take this email to “E”: “you were in my thoughts a lot today (just general contemplations about independance [sic], unknown vistas, all the swell stuff that could happen for you, and soon…) was it a heavy birthday or a light one? and how would you rate your life thus far on a scale of 1 to 11?”

Then again, my preference for Dunham’s email style is likely personal: it’s impossible not to get through the series without developing strong feelings about who you would and would not want to befriend.

Perhaps it’s because we now spend so much time online that email can be so much more telling than in-person communication. We’ve adjusted to boiling our thoughts down to 140 characters, and rather than making those thoughts less profound, that’s actually made us more able to express ourselves fully in just a few lines.  It’s also provided a mode of connection that is individual and honest—and if we’re already spending so much of our time on the Internet, we should be happy that it has adapted to our emotional needs. We may think alone, but email makes it a little less lonely.