Gosh, I love a good word. I love one as much now as I did when I was nine and learned the meaning of the word intercourse. (It means the connection or dealings between persons or groups, or an exchange, a discussion, especially of thoughts or feelings. Of course.)

I also loved learning the meaning of penultimate. And it seems like a really well-kept secret, that one. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen (and heard) it used in the sense of something being “the ultimate ultimate” (’cause that’s what it sounds like, no?) but—and I’m certain this may come as a shock to some readers—it actually means next to the last. (The penultimate chapter of a book with thirty chapters is chapter 29, for example.)

But the word I want to talk about today is epistolary. Adjective. According to my favorite dictionary, it means: 1) of, relating to, or suitable to a letter; 2) contained in or carried on by letters (“an endless sequence of epistolary love affairs”); or 3) written in the form of a series of letters (as in an epistolary novel).

Although it sounds fairly simple, this is not a technique for beginners—just imagine the POV challenges, for starters. Or how to keep the plot’s action moving. It can come off as nothing more than a gimmick if not done well—yet some of the most delightful books I’ve read are epistolary novels. Here’s my list:

The Historian (Elizabeth Kostova, 2005). Not strictly epistolary, but the plot hinges on a series of mysterious letters. Vampire novels have been given a bad name recently, but this is what a vampire novel should be: weird, creepy, and lyrically beautiful. Highly, highly recommended.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky, 1999). Every generation has its teenage angst novel, and this one was on the Boy’s school reading list (which is how it came to my attention). Shy, introspective Charlie writes a series of letters about his first year of high school.

Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes, 1966). Speaking of high school reading lists, here’s one that was on mine. This poignant science fiction novel is a series of progress reports written by a man with an IQ of 68 who has experimental brain surgery to make him smarter. Moving and, in its day, controversial.

84, Charing Cross Road (Helene Hanff, 1970). In 1949 a woman in New York writes to an antiquarian bookseller in London to buy books she cannot find locally. Over time, a friendship develops, including the exchanging of Christmas and birthday gifts. This is a touching true story.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, 2008). In 1946 an English writer receives a letter from a stranger who lives on the island of Guernsey; what follows is a history of the Nazi occupation of this tiny British Crown Dependency in the English Channel. Sweet, funny, light—loved it.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lionel Shriver, 2003). After their teenage son commits a massacre at his school, his mother writes a series of letters to her estranged husband as she tries to understand what led to the horrific event. Shriver is a fearless author who never sugarcoats; I also loved her The Post-Birthday World.

Griffin & Sabine (Nick Bantock, 1991). A gorgeous art book, the letters and postcards—an exchange between two artists—are real. The reader opens envelopes to remove letters, and reads the writers’ individual handwriting. The first in a trilogy, the story continues in a second trilogy. Beautiful.

Fair and Tender Ladies (Lee Smith, 1988). I love everything Smith has written, but this is her masterpiece. A young Appalachian mountain girl’s life is revealed in the letters she writes to family and friends. Interesting also for any writer who wants to study how best to use vernacular. This is one of my all-time favorite books.

Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters (Mark Dunn, 2001). I love this book of linguistic gamesmanship so much I don’t even know where to start. A fictional town council bans the use of certain letters of the alphabet, and Ella and her friends and family find ways to cope—and fight back. Imaginative, humorous, pure delight.

Have I missed your favorite? Let me know. Otherwise … Go buy a book! Read! Enjoy!

NOTE: This article was first run in 2011.

As I read over the list of titles here, several others spring to mind:
Attachments (Rainbow rowell, 2011)
Dear Mr. Knightley (Katherine Reay, 2013)
Gilead (Marilynne Robinson, 2004)
I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith, 1949)
Where’s You Go, Bernadette (Maria Semple, 2012)

Tweet: Gosh, I love a good word. This week’s vocab: epistolary.
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