Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing

Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing

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by Nina Sankovitch

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The author of the much-admired Tolstoy and the Purple Chair goes on a quest through the history of letters and her own personal correspondence to discover and celebrate what is special about the handwritten letter.

Hailed as witty, moving, enlightening, and inspiring, Signed, Sealed, Delivered begins with Nina Sankovitch’s discovery of a trove

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The author of the much-admired Tolstoy and the Purple Chair goes on a quest through the history of letters and her own personal correspondence to discover and celebrate what is special about the handwritten letter.

Hailed as witty, moving, enlightening, and inspiring, Signed, Sealed, Delivered begins with Nina Sankovitch’s discovery of a trove of hundred year-old letters. The letters are in an old steamer trunk she finds in her backyard and include missives written by a Princeton freshman to his mother in the early 1900s. Nina’s own son is heading off to Harvard, and she hopes that he will write to her, as the Princeton student wrote to his mother and as Nina wrote to hers. But times have changed. Before Nina can persuade her child of the value of letters, she must first understand for herself exactly what it is about letters that make them so significant—and just why she wants to receive letters from her son. Sankovitch sets off on a quest through the history of letter writing—from the ancient Egyptians to the medieval lovers Abelard and Heloise, from the letters received by President Lincoln after his son’s death to the correspondence of Edith Wharton and Henry James.

Sankovitch uncovers and defines the specific qualities that make letters so special, examining not only historical letters but also the letters in epistolary novels, her husband’s love letters, and dozens more sources, including her son’s brief reports from college on the weather and his allowance.

In this beautifully written book, Nina Sankovitch reminds us that letters offer proof and legacy of what is most important in life: love and connection. In the end, she finds, the letters we write are even more important than the ones we wait for.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Perfect for devotes of pen and paper, Sankovitch’s (Tolstoy and the Purple Chair) new book examines her personal correspondence with family and friends and the letters of strangers, famous and obscure, and shows the reading of letters to be a pleasurable form of discovery and connection. In addition to insightful commentary on the liberating “cloak of privacy” that letters enjoy, Sankovitch details her experiences discovering letters in a shed in her new home, in a bookstore, and on a visit to a museum, as well as describing the paper on which the letters were written and the quality of the handwriting. Sankovitch looks at friendships and loves that are discovered and maintained through letters (for example, Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman), letters written to advice columnists, and final correspondences. Famous names cited here include Heloise and Abelard, Gertrude Stein, Thornton Wilder, and Edward Gorey, but the book’s highlight turns out to be communications between lesser-known authors, for example, two childhood friends turned lovers or two free black women in love in the pre–Civil War North. The book is an enjoyable, if sentimental read and will likely inspire both old-fashioned letter reading and letter writing. Agent: Esther Newberg, ICM. (Apr.)
Kirkus Reviews
A son's departure for college prompted Sankovitch (Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading, 2011, etc.) to wonder, "Why does a letter mean so much?" Wanting more than the usual texts and occasional phone calls from Peter, his mother tucked a box of notecards with stamped envelopes into his luggage. Her desire for an actual handwritten letter got the author thinking about the different ways in which correspondence connects us to others, and her agreeable narrative roams through many varieties: love letters, thank-you letters, condolence letters, letters to friends, letters of advice, etc. Sankovitch begins with her discovery of a cache of old letters in the dilapidated house she and her husband, Jack, bought on Manhattan's Upper West Side when their four children were small. Most were from James Bernheimer Seligman to his mother while he was at Princeton (1908–1912), and Sankovitch loved her "escape from my life as a mother…into a life as a turn-of-the-century man about town." Some letters plunge us into a historical period, she notes; others preserve memories from our own: "Most of us won't make it into the history books….But we can leave a part of ourselves behind in the letters we write." The author sees letters as a private space in which we can express thoughts and feelings we might not want to voice publicly, yet unlike a diary, they are shared with another person in an act of intimacy and trust. She illustrates her points with famous examples—Heloise's letters to Abelard, James Joyce's lustful correspondence with Nora Barnacle; Emily Dickinson's flirtatious one with Thomas Wentworth Higginson—and muses on the pleasure of waiting for a letter to arrive, as opposed to the instant gratification of email. There are no especially astounding insights here, but it's a sweet-natured, well-written affirmation of the time-honored role of letters as a uniquely personal way to communicate.
The Sacramento Bee
“Does anybody remember the values associated with hand-writing a letter? Does the word “cursive” ring a bell? The author of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair eloquently tracks the history of letter-writing, and along the way reminds us of how a real letter establishes a personal bond between the writer and the recipient.”
“In this age of e-mail, few appreciate any longer the deep joys and satisfactions that spring in mind and heart from writing and receiving letters. Sankovitch combs history to find exceptional correspondents… this book should encourage readers to search out and read the letters' full texts.”
The Connecticut Post
“[Sankovitch] makes an eloquent argument on behalf of the unique personal qualities of sending and receiving letters.”
“Part memoir, part meditation, part artful history lesson…and part reminder to put a pen to paper”
Kati Marton
“I loved this this poignant and inspirational book. Nina Sankovitch brings many lost worlds and characters—from Abelard and Eloise to Edith Wharton—vividly to life through the power of letters. At the same time, she reminds us of all that we have lost since texting has replaced letter writing as a vital connection among humans. A pure delight.”
Sylvia Nasar
“I challenge you to stop reading Signed, Sealed, Delivered after the Queen of Bohemia's flame to the Earl of Carlisle which begins ‘Thou ugly, filthy, camel's face...’ I know I couldn't.”
Lesley Stahl
“How sad to think our children may never get a letter from a friend or a lover, the art of both—the sentiment and penmanship—fading away like an old Polaroid. Nina Sankovitch’s lovely, elegant book about the intimacy of letters is rich with treasures from politicians, soldiers, mothers, prisoners, husbands, and wooers. It is a joy to read, savor, and remember.”
Harold Holzer
“Dear reader: I hasten to alert you to an irresistible book exploring personal correspondence across many periods of history and every range of human emotion. If letter-writing is a lost, or at best a vanishing, art, Nina Sankovitch has injected it with new hope and life. Take that, email and twitter. Frankly, I could not put this book down, else I would have written sooner.”

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Product Details

Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Signed, Sealed, Delivered


Thank you—that is for being born and for the letters too.

—Letter from Georgia O’Keeffe to Alfred Stieglitz

When my oldest son was still an only child, my husband and I bought him his first chair and desk. The three of us had set out for the Chelsea flea market early one October morning. The market was known for its collection of used furniture, slightly bent lamps, and bizarre bric-a-brac. We had no clear goal in mind other than wandering through the outdoor aisles before the popular spot became too crowded for a large-wheeled stroller.

It was a day of big blue skies and fresh air after a night of cleansing rain. We had nothing more pressing to do than keep our thirteen-month-old son happy. Full of young-parent energy and caffeine, we walked the sixty blocks downtown. Jack and I took turns pushing the stroller while Peter entertained us with a constant barrage of songs and chatter.

I don’t remember who first spotted the small desk and chair, perfectly matched in slivered oak and inlaid scarring, bearing witness to at least one generation of scribblers before us. But there was no question in any of our minds: Peter thumped the desk with his fist and the set was ours.

We shoved the stroller, desk, and chair into the back of a large yellow cab and went home to the Upper West Side. I cleared out a corner of the living room for Peter’s desk, just below a window and to the side of our nonworking but fine-looking fireplace. From our small kitchen alcove I would be able to keep an eye on the desk, and when I sat to read on the couch facing the fireplace, Peter would be there beside me, working away while I turned pages.

I set up jars of markers and crayons along Peter’s desk, just where it met the brick wall. I laid out stacks of notebook paper, small index cards, and used envelopes, leaving the middle space of the desk open and clear. Above the jars I attached Peter’s favorite postcard to the rough bricks, a portrait of Shakespeare: the writer looks grim, his lips set in a downward line between goatee and mustache. Five ounces of blue sticky gum held the card straight. Everything was set and ready.

Peter toddled on sturdy legs over to his desk, pulled out his chair, and began to scribble. He quickly covered an index card with blue marker squiggles, then carefully worked the card into an envelope. His face serious, he turned and handed me the envelope. I had received my first letter from Peter.

Flash-forward seventeen years, and it is another beautiful fall morning. Peter’s old desk now sits in a sunroom off the main drag of the suburban home we moved to when our fourth child was born. Peter is away at college. We dropped him off there in August, moving him into his dorm on his eighteenth birthday. After getting him settled, we went out for lunch, to celebrate the birthday and the start of college.

“After we eat, you guys should get going,” Peter said to me as we sat down in the French restaurant a block away from Harvard Yard.

“No problem.” I nodded. I understood. He wasn’t saying “hit the road” to me, not really. He was just saying that it was time for him to go his own way, and that family was not invited.

Within hours of leaving him on the steps of Memorial Hall, I got a text on my phone: “Love you.”

I showed it to Jack.

“Nice,” he said, and I agreed. Very nice.

But I wanted more. I wanted more than the texts and tweets and the occasional phone calls I got over the next few weeks. I wanted a letter.

“Drop me a line sometime,” goes the old farewell. A casual request, but for me a strong desire. With one child off at college, and three more to go, joining their brother in places near or far but not home with me, I wondered: Why does a letter mean so much?

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Meet the Author

Nina Sankovitch is the acclaimed author of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, selected by Oprah as a “book to read now,” and a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. She is married and lives in Connecticut.

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Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous 7 months ago
Very quick and great read