Tag Archives: epistolary novels

The Lost Art of the Handwritten Letter

Dear Eleventh Stack Readers,

Even in (or perhaps despite?) this digital age I live in, I’ve always loved handwritten letters. There’s just something special about someone willing to take the time to craft a newsy letter and it’s even more fun to receive it in the mail; it’s a bonus if it’s handwritten on lovely paper. For over twenty years now, I’ve corresponded with a grad school friend whom I have not seen since 1991 but, every month, we exchange letters. In fact, she refuses to correspond with me via email and, to tell the truth, it wouldn’t be the same. Email makes it too easy to be short and abbreviated but, with paper and pen, I can take my time telling my news; it’s almost meditative.

My minimalist tendencies, however, get in my way. Currently I am trying to use up all of my stationery stock before I even consider buying more. But it has made me even more creative (okay, let’s face it, cheap) and I’ve even taken to using old library book due date cards and old postcards. My friend, on the other hand, always seems to have a limitless supply of beautiful writing papers and cards for every occasion.

I love to write so writing letters and coming up with things to write about has never been a problem for me but, if it is for you, the library has several books to help:

For the Love of Letters : a 21st-Century Guide to the Art of Letter Writing by Samara O’Shea

The Art of the Handwritten Note : a Guide to Reclaiming Civilized Communication by Margaret Shepherd

Just Write : the Art of Personal Correspondence by Molly O’Shaughnessy

In closing, as an English major, I can’t let the moment go by without mentioning a few of my favorite epistolary novels that tell a story through letters:

Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos

Lady Susan by Jane Austen

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Until next time,
Maria

P.S. There’s even a lovely little zine in our Zine Collection about letter writing:  All This is Mine #12 by Sugene

Source: All This is Mine

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Love letters?

Or emails?  Or notes?  Or text messages?

I recently finished The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows, and rediscovered how much fun it can be to read epistolary novels. You know, the ones that tell the story through letters or other writings. (I had to look it up – can you tell?)

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society takes place just after World War II, and begins with a letter from a pig farmer to an author, asking for help finding a book and mentioning that the literary society kept them going through the war.  With that intriguing start, the letters build a story of the war and survival, of love and loss, and of the importance of books and stories in every life.

Of course, we all know that “no one writes letters any more,” and epistolary novels keep up with the times.  Boy Meets Girl, by Meg Cabot, uses emails, memos, faxes, and even restaurant receipts to tell the story of a young woman dealing with a nasty boss, a lawsuit, and a disarmingly handsome lawyer. Anyone who’s had their own “T.O.D.” (or “Tyrannical Office Despot”) can compare notes with Kate Mackenzie.

If you’re looking for other suggestions, you could also try:

  • Ella Minnow Pea: A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable, by Mark Dunn, takes place on the island of Nollop, home to the creator of the sentence “The quick, brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” whose residents are so proud of their facility with language that they’ve eschewed more modern forms of communication and kept letter-writing as their primary communication tool. When one of the letters falls off of Nevin Nollop’s statue, the island’s government decides it is a sign that the letter should be banished from use. As another letter falls, then another, the island’s inhabitants must use fewer and fewer letters in their letters, and try to figure out a way around the linguistically-challenging laws.
  • A Celibate Season, by Carol Shields, Blanche Howard, in which each author wrote the letters for one partner in a marriage that’s going through a temporary separation after 20 years. When Jock takes a job assignment on the other side of the country, she and Chas decide that they will use letters to communicate. The combination of news, familiarity, and raw emotion that is so characteristic of this kind of interchange will strike a nerve in anyone who has corresponded with someone close to them.
  • Another email novel, Dear Stranger, Dearest Friend, by Laney Katz Becker, starts on a bulletin board for breast cancer. Lara and Susan find an instant connection through a shared sense of humor, which blossoms into a full and loving friendship that goes far beyond a disease.
  • In It’s Getting Later All the Time: A Novel in the Form of Letters, by Antonio Tabucchi, the letters appear to be one-sided communications that each tell the story of a relationship, until the final answer. As in any good epistolary novel, what has really happened is left to the imagination.

And if you’d like even more suggestions, do a search for “epistolary novels” in our good-book-finding database, Novelist. It requires a library card number if you’re not inside the library, and it’s so worth it. You might also try looking here, or here. If you’ve enjoyed one yourself, post it in the comments. Nothing beats a personal recommendation!

-Kaarin

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