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Two Stories That Unfold Through Letters



Dear readers,

Even though I’m pretty sure it’s a federal crime, I love reading other people’s mail. I’d never rifle through your mailbox — mostly because I’m afraid of getting caught — but I will definitely sneak a peek at that postcard lying face up on your kitchen table. Forgive me; it’s tantalizing, and it says so much in so few words.

I swear this unsavory habit has less to do with nosiness than it does with a lifelong enthusiasm for correspondence. The whole enterprise thrills me: the stamps, the stationery, the dependable magic of the postal service. (Can we agree that “lost in the mail” is the “dog ate my homework” of adulthood?) Sadly, I don’t put pen to paper as often as I did before the dawn of smartphones, but I still hang onto the rare letter or card that lands in my mailbox. Each one is a thought that counts — real in the way the Velveteen Rabbit aspired to be, and permanent in the way the Giving Tree would have been had she not been bamboozled by that greedy boy

Maybe this is why I’m such a fan of epistolary books: They’re reminders that a letter is still the most enduring way to make a statement. Also, “epistolary” such a funny word! Try to say it without smiling. Herewith I enclose my favorite examples of the genre.

Yours in perpetuity,


On Oct. 5, 1949, a struggling writer named Helene Hanff fired off a letter to a London bookshop, requesting secondhand copies of a few books she was having trouble locating in Manhattan. She’d seen an ad for Marks & Co. in the Saturday Review of Literature; she confessed that the phrase “antiquarian” made her nervous because she equated it with “expensive.” A few weeks later, Hanff received a response from Frank Doel, a bookseller who promised to send two of the essay collections she’d requested and keep an eye out for a third.

This was the start of a 20-year correspondence that included Doel’s wife, his neighbor and one of his daughters, plus several Marks & Co. employees. Hanff’s literary demands were fast and furious, sandwiched between witty updates about her neighbors and salty opinions on the latest additions to her library. Doel’s letters softened over time — it took him three years to address Hanff by her first name — as he sent news of his family and thanks for the dried eggs, tins of tongue and other cherished items Hanff dispatched to war-torn, heavily rationed London.

“I do think it’s a very uneven exchange of Christmas presents,” Hanff wrote after receiving a leather-bound edition of “The Book-Lovers’ Anthology” from Doel. “You’ll eat yours up in a week and have nothing left to show for it by New Year’s Day. I’ll have mine till the day I die — and die happy in the knowledge that I’m leaving it behind for someone else to love. I shall sprinkle pale pencil marks through it pointing out the best passages to some book lover yet unborn.”

The former site of Marks & Co. now houses a McDonald’s, but this charming collection proves that words, like Styrofoam coffee cups, will outlive us all.

Read if you like: Manual typewriters, strong tea, “Crossing Delancey,” “Auntie Mame,” “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry”
Available from: A used bookstore, Camden Market, the library, wherever good books are sold

Fiction, 2008

Please don’t judge this one by its cover. I, too, am skeptical of a book that announces itself with a moody photo of a faceless woman gazing out to sea. Throw in a perplexing title and an aerogramme addressed in Declaration of Independence handwriting and I understand your impulse to send my recommendation straight to your trash.

Trust me: This joint effort between an aunt (Shaffer) and a niece (Barrows) is worth your time, especially on the heels of “84, Charing Cross Road.” It also whisks us to London in the aftermath of World War II, this time in the hands of Juliet Ashton, a young writer who is casting around for a new book idea. Out of the blue, she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams of Guernsey Island, an outpost in the British Isles that was occupied by German troops from 1940 to 1945. We learn that Dawsey and a coterie of neighbors endured the intrusion thanks to their motley reading group, which spurred him to read — and fall in love with — an essay collection by Charles Lamb. Lo and behold, Juliet’s name and address happened to be written inside Dawsey’s copy of the book, so he writes to ask for her help ordering more of Lamb’s work.

And so begins a flurry of missives between Juliet and Dawsey. She wants to know what life was like for him during the war; he explains the genesis of the Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society; and pretty soon fellow members start writing to Juliet too. Shaffer and Barrows also weave in notes from Juliet’s editor, her best friend and an erstwhile sleazy suitor (who is, of course, American). A solid plot begins to take shape — no easy feat with only letters as construction materials. But books make a sturdy foundation for a heartfelt love story with sweeping island views.

Read if you like: “Letters to a Young Poet” by Rainer Maria Rilke, “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr, quiet stoics, scented candles, pub trivia
Available from: Your mom’s bookshelf (if she loves “All Creatures Great and Small”), with an ensemble cast, Netflix (not as good as the book)

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