Wednesday, 3 February 2016

29 Book Suggestions for the Month of Letters

Image: courtesy of Andrys at pixabay

Or: Tribute to the Epistolary Novel

Thanks to the book blog A Work in Progress I learnt that February is the month of Letters.

Obviously, it’s not the letters of the alphabet that are meant, but the old-fashioned means to let people who aren’t around know things first-hand (and secretly if need be) instead of from hear-say. With the technological progress of telecommunications, notably the invention of the Internet, letters have almost disappeared from our daily lives although there are still enthusiasts like me who keep alive the ancient art of writing snail mail. For the rest, I reckon that many digital natives will know (private) letters only from books.

As it happens, many authors exchanged letters with friends, colleagues or the great men and women of their time. Often their more or less private correspondence was later published in books, be it still during their life-time or posthumously, and there’s no need to draw extra attention to these collections since they are recognisable at first sight for what they are. In fact, I’m more interested in fictional letters that have been an important, almost indispensable ingredient of novels for centuries. Just think of the many letters that Jane Austen makes write Lizzy Bennet and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice to name but one example. Moreover, there’s an entire literary form based on letters: the epistolary novel.

The origins of the epistolary novel date back until the late seventeenth century at least. Because together with the diary novel it was the first literary form that allowed a more personal, even intimate perspective, it can with due right be called a precursor of the modern psychological novel. Many authors used the format to tell their stories. Many of these epistolary novels are forgotten today because they lost relevance as time progressed, while others have become timeless classics that are not only famous but also widely-read until the present day. Among contemporary authors the epistolary novel isn’t very popular although every once and again one of them takes up the thread using the format in its traditional or a modernised form.

On the occasion of this Month of Letters I put together the following – chronological – list of 29 epistolary novels, one for each day of February (2016 is a leap-year, in case you haven’t yet noticed!), although I doubt that anybody can read them all within only one month. Some of the books on my list, notably the English translations, seem to be out of print or difficult to get like the three by recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature (Heinrich Böll, Saul Bellow and Camilo José Cela) that would be perfect contributions to Read the Nobels 2016. Nonetheless, I hope that you'll find something to your taste. Enjoy!

  1. Aphra Behn: Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1684)
  2. Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu: Persian Letters (1721), original French title: Lettres persanes
  3. Samuel Richardson: Clarissa or, The History of a Young Lady (1748)
  4. John Cleland: Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1749)
  5. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Julie, or the New Heloise (1761), original French title: Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse
  6. Sophie von La Roche: The History of Lady Sophia Sternheim, Volume 1 and Volume 2 (1771), original German title: Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim
  7. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), original German title: Die Leiden des jungen Werther
  8. Pierre-Ambroise-François Choderlos de Laclos: Dangerous Liaisons (1782), original French title: Les Liaisons dangereuses
  9. Fyodor Dostoevsky: Poor Folk (1846), original Russian title: Бедные люди
  10. Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Die Briefe des Zurückgekehrten (1907), only partly translated as Colours: Extracts from the Letters of a Man who Returned
  11. Stefan Zweig: Letter from an Unknown Woman (1922), original German title: Brief einer Unbekannten   »»» read my short review on Lagraziana's Kalliopeion
  12. Kathrine Taylor: Address Unknown (1938)
  13. C. S. Lewis: The Screwtape Letters (1942)
  14. Thornton Wilder: The Ides of March (1948)
  15. Camilo José Cela: Mrs Caldwell Speaks to her Son (1953), original Spanish title: Mrs Caldwell habla con su hijo
  16. Saul Bellow: Herzog (1964)
  17. Wolfgang Bauer: The Feverhead (1967), original German title: Der Fieberkopf
  18. John Barth: Letters (1979)
  19. Mariama : So Long a Letter (1980), original French title: Une si longue lettre
  20. Heinrich Böll: A Soldier’s Legacy (1982), original German title: Das Vermächtnis
  21. Alice Walker: The Color Purple (1982)
  22. Natalia Ginzburg: The City and the House (1984), original Italian title: La città e la casa
    read my review
  23. Amos Oz: Black Box (1986), original Hebrew title: קופסה שחורה
  24. Ana Castillo: The Mixquiahuala Letters (1986)
  25. Paul Auster: In the Country of Last Things (1987)
  26. Susanna Tamaro: Follow Your Heart (1994), original Italian title: Va dove ti porta il cuore
    »»» read my review
  27. Sylvia Iparraguirre: Tierra del Fuego (1998), original Spanish title: La tierra del fuego
    »»» read my review 
  28. Stephen Chbosky: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999)
  29. Aravind Adiga: The White Tiger (2008)


  1. What an interesting list. I have to admit shamefully, that I only read two (7 and 22) of the books mentioned. But that doesn't mean I won't take this as an instigation to read more of those. Thank you so much for this.

    Marianne from
    Let's Read

    1. Well, although I made this list, I must confess that I haven't read more than two of the books, either - the two that I reviewed. Some have been on my TBR list already for a while and I had no idea that they were epistolary novels until I wrote this post.

      Thanks for your comment!


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