The word of the day: Epistolary

Relating to, or suitable to a letter; written in the form of a series of letters

Dear person reading this,

Had you heard today’s word of the day before now? I don’t mean to be patronizing. It’s just that I never expected to uncork a five-syllable wonder so early in this list, if at all, and I realize that epistolary is not a common word. I think about it a lot though. It’s a format that’s permeated a lot of my writing, and while I don’t know if it’s my favorite, but I do know that I like letters.

The word itself (e-pist-o-larry) has Bibilical roots and comes from a noun, “epistle.” And epistles were the letters written by the apostles (OMG cute), but in a broader sense they were any long-form composition for a specific audience. The most famous epistles were written by Paul (née Saul) of New Testament fame. Romans, everheardofit?

There’s something compelling about a letter, right? They have a certain quality, a tone, that to me, isn’t there in other writing. When a letter has a single addressee, its message is electrified and immediate, even a note from a concerned neighbor:

“Dearest Abigail, stop eating my roses.”

It can warm your face to read something directed to you. Letters rely on the relationship between the writer and reader, in a way a novel, play, or essay cannot. Even when the correspondents begin as strangers (like in The Cousins by Joyce Carol Oates), the distance itself is the foundation for narrative. Epistolary builds a universe with only three parts: reader, writer, and the ever-appended document itself.

Some worthy takes on the format:

  • The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky
  • The Ballad of Chasey Lain, Bloodhound Gang

Should I ever write a novel, it will probably be epistolary in form. Even my personal inventory is tainted with the stuff. I must truly get it out of my system. Until I do, please know in my words that a “dear reader” is ever implied.

Yours very truly madly deeply always sincerely,


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