Do you want to read somebody else's mail? It's not a crime if the letters are in a book! If you’re looking for something to read and are feeling nostalgic for a bit of old-school snail-mail, here’s a list you might enjoy, of some of my favourites.
84 CharingCross Road by Helene Hanff
Why I like it: I picked up this book in a second-hand bookshop purely on the basis that the cover looked a lot like the cover of my own book Airmail, which had just come out. It turned out to be the most beautiful, heartwarming, true story of unlikely pen-pals, spanning decades.
On the back: 84, Charing Cross Road is a charming record of bibliophilia, cultural difference, and imaginative sympathy. For 20 years, an outspoken New York writer and a rather more restrained London bookseller carried on an increasingly touching correspondence. In her first letter to Marks & Co., Helene Hanff encloses a wish list, but warns, "The phrase 'antiquarian booksellers' scares me somewhat, as I equate 'antique' with expensive." Twenty days later, on October 25, 1949, a correspondent identified only as FPD let Hanff know that works by Hazlitt and Robert Louis Stevenson would be coming under separate cover. When they arrive, Hanff is ecstatic--but unsure she'll ever conquer "bilingual arithmetic." By early December 1949, Hanff is suddenly worried that the six-pound ham she's sent off to augment British rations will arrive in a kosher office. But only when FPD turns out to have an actual name, Frank Doel, does the real fun begin. Two years later, Hanff is outraged that Marks & Co. has dared to send an abridged Pepys diary. "i enclose two limp singles, i will make do with this thing till you find me a real Pepys. THEN i will rip up this ersatz book, page by page, AND WRAP THINGS IN IT." Nonetheless, her postscript asks whether they want fresh or powdered eggs for Christmas. Soon they're sharing news of Frank's family and Hanff's career.
Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows
Why I like it: I was late to the fan club for this book. People kept telling me to read it and I could tell I would enjoy it but somehow I never seemed to get around to picking it up. Last week I went into Readings and asked for "The book with the guernsey and the potatoes" and they knew exactly what I meant. Now I'm half way through and just can't put it down.
On the back: “I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some sort of secret homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.” January 1946: London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, and writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject. Who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she’s never met, a native of the island of Guernsey, who has come across her name written inside a book by Charles Lamb…
As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters, Juliet is drawn into the world of this man and his friends—and what a wonderfully eccentric world it is. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society—born as a spur-of-the-moment alibi when its members were discovered breaking curfew by the Germans occupying their island—boasts a charming, funny, deeply human cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists, literature lovers all.
Juliet begins a remarkable correspondence with the society’s members, learning about their island, their taste in books, and the impact the recent German occupation has had on their lives. Captivated by their stories, she sets sail for Guernsey, and what she finds will change her forever.
Written with warmth and humor as a series of letters, this novel is a celebration of the written word in all its guises, and of finding connection in the most surprising ways.
Airmail by Naomi Bulger (yes that’s me!)
Why I like it: I wrote this book and even after all these years, I'm still proud of it. It's about so many things that I love: snail-mail, storytelling, New York, love, and a little bit of magic in everyday life.
On the back: Reclusive old Mr. G.L. Solomon's favorite things are single malt whiskey, Steve McQueen movies, and gingersnap cookies. He hates processed cheese, washing detergent commercials, and the way the teacup rattles in the saucer when he picks it up. Solomon has become accustomed to his lonely routine in Sydney, Australia-until the day he begins sporadically receiving letters in his mailbox from a complete stranger. On the other side of the world, Anouk is a mentally delicate young woman living in New York who insists she is being stalked by a fat woman in a pink tracksuit. When Anouk declares to Solomon that she is writing "from the Other Side," the old man breaks away from his daily grind of watching soap operas and reading "Fishing World" and travels to New York to find her. As he is drawn into Anouk's surreal world of stalkers and storytelling, marbles and cats, purgatory and Plato, Solomon has but one goal-to unravel the mystery before it is too late.
Possession by A.S.Byatt
Why I like it: Romance and mystery, unfolding piece by piece in letters, notes and poems. I love that the written word can contain and keep alive powerful emotions - like love and possession - long after the lover is gone. And I love the idea of notes and letters, scattered throughout history as clues left for the future.
On the back: Possession is an exhilarating novel of wit and romance, at once an intellectual mystery and triumphant love story. It is the tale of a pair of young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets. As they uncover their letters, journals, and poems, and track their movements from London to Yorkshire—from spiritualist séances to the fairy-haunted far west of Brittany—what emerges is an extraordinary counterpoint of passions and ideas.
The Jolly Postman by Janet & Allan Ahlberg
Why I like it: This one is a classic! Did you read it as a kid? The postman visits all your fairy-tale favourites and delivers their mail. It's gorgeously interactive as you get to lift the letters out of their envelopes to read them. I think the witch's shopping catalogue is my favourite.
On the back: Join the Jolly Postman as he goes on his rounds via bicycle, delivering mail to Goldilocks, Cinderella, Jack's Giant, and other fairy-tale characters. Tucked into envelopes are actual letters for children to pluck out. Humorous and engaging, this is the perfect read over a spot of tea. Ahhh!
Snail Mail by Michelle Mackintosh
Why I like it: Only released earlier this month, Snail Mail is a stunningly illustrated celebration of snail mail, with a whole lot of how-to know-how and inspiration for anyone who wants to revive the lost art of writing letters (and do it really well). The author is a neighbour of mine and I can't believe I didn't know it at the time, but she invited people to send her mail-art to be included in the book. If you look in the front fly-leaf, there's a photo of Michelle and her cat in front of a wall of beautiful mail-art. And when I squint, I recognise names on there, of friends and people I admire. So sweet!
On the back: Snail Mail reintroduces the lost pleasure and art of personal correspondence, beautiful presentation, and manners to today’s world of instant communication. In a world of 140-character limits, Snapchats, text-speak, and internet trolls, are we losing the ability to really communicate with our loved ones Snail Mail aims to bring back handwritten communication—and more—in one beautifully illustrated and perfectly proper little package. Inspired by Japanese stationery and letter-writing culture, Michelle Mackintosh introduces the reader to the charm of the handwritten letter, personalized packages, and handcrafted stationery. Beautifully illustrated and complete with cutout postcard designs, papercraft, and rubber stamp templates, Snail Mail is full of equally useful and whimsical advice, like how to say thank you in a letter and other old-school etiquette; how to take time and reflect on your life through writing; how to improve and celebrate your own handwriting; how to make your own paper; how to romance someone the old-school way; how to make pen friends and DIY beautiful invitations for any occasion. It’s time to take back the written word!
To the Letter by Simon Garfield
Why I like it: This book was a surprise gift, sent to me via snail mail (of course) from Rachel Cox. I love that the author likens the act of writing and sending snail mail to kindness, because of the time and effort and thought required. I wrote about it when I first opened the book, here.
On the back: Few things are as exciting—and potentially life-changing—as discovering an old letter. And while etiquette books still extol the practice, letter writing seems to be disappearing amid a flurry of e-mails, texting, and tweeting. The recent decline in letter writing marks a cultural shift so vast that in the future historians may divide time not between BC and AD but between the eras when people wrote letters and when they did not. So New York Times bestselling author Simon Garfield asks: Can anything be done to revive a practice that has dictated and tracked the progress of civilization for more than five hundred years?
In To the Letter, Garfield traces the fascinating history of letter writing from the love letter and the business letter to the chain letter and the letter of recommendation. He provides a tender critique of early letter-writing manuals and analyzes celebrated correspondence from Erasmus to Princess Diana. He also considers the role that letters have played as a literary device from Shakespeare to the epistolary novel, all the rage in the eighteenth century and alive and well today with bestsellers like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. At a time when the decline of letter writing appears to be irreversible, Garfield is the perfect candidate to inspire bibliophiles to put pen to paper and create “a form of expression, emotion, and tactile delight we may clasp to our heart.”
Floating Worlds by Edward Gorey & Peter Neumeyer
Why I like it: This book was another surprise gift in the mail, from my dear friend and author Ruby Blessing, and it is the book that got me excited and inspired about sending mail-art. It is simply beautiful to read, and even better to look at.
On the back: Edward Gorey and Peter Neumeyer met in the summer of 1968. Gorey had been contracted by Addison-Wesley to illustrate "Donald and the...," a childrens story written by Neumeyer. On their first encounter, Neumeyer managed to dislocate Goreys shoulder when he grabbed his arm to keep him from falling into the ocean. In a hospital waiting room, they pored over Goreys drawings for the first time together, and Gorey infused the situation with much hilarity. This was the beginning of an invigorating friendship, fueled by a wealth of letters and postcards that sped between the two men through the fall of 1969.Those letters, published here for the first time, are remarkable in their quantity and their content. While the creative collaborations of Gorey and Neumeyer centered on illustrated books, they held wide-ranging interests; both were erudite, voracious readers, and they sent each other many volumes. Reading their discussions of these books, one marvels at the beauty of thoughtful (and merry) discourse driven by intellectual curiosity.
The letters also paint an intimate portrait of Edward Gorey, a man often mischaracterized as macabre or even ghoulish. His gentleness, humility, and brilliance--interwoven with his distinctive humor--shine in these letters; his deft artistic hand is evident on the decorated envelopes addressed to Neumeyer, 38 of which are reproduced here.
During the time of their correspondence, Peter Neumeyer was teaching at Harvard University and at SUNY Stony Brook, on Long Island. His acumen and compassion, expressed in his discerning, often provocative missives, reveal him to be an ideal creative and intellectual ally for Gorey.
More than anything else, Floating Worlds is the moving memoir of an extraordinary friendship. Gorey wrote that he felt that they were “part of the same family, and I don’t mean just metaphorically. I guess that even more than I think of you as a friend, I think of you as my brother.” Neumeyer stated, “Your letters . . . your existence has made something of this world that [it] hadn’t the possibility of before.”