The best letters books

17 authors have picked their favorite books about letters and why they recommend each book.

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Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends

By David Epston, Michael White,

Book cover of Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends

Narrative Therapy (of which this book is the founding text) traces its roots back to the French philosopher Michel Foucault and postmodern philosophy. Not that anyone can agree on a definition of postmodernism. Invoking Foucault’s critique of power, narrative therapy sees the DSM-5 (the standard list of mental illness that is akin to the Bible in psychiatry) as grounded not in objective truth but as a mostly fabricated list of pseudo-diseases a profession has conjured up in order to assure it is well-paid. Narrative therapy works not on attempting to change any objective condition the client may inhabit but to motivate the patient to change his subjective view of his condition.

Who am I?

As an emeritus professor of philosophy now working as a licensed therapist, I feel uniquely qualified to span the two worlds of philosophy and psychotherapy. In addition to dozens of academic articles which no one has ever read, I’ve published books on modern China, ancient Greek Stoicism, Bob Dylan, and the TV show The Sopranos, which at least a few people seem to have picked up.

I wrote...

Blogging The Plague: Camus, Covid-19, and the Current Chaos

By Peter Vernezze,

Book cover of Blogging The Plague: Camus, Covid-19, and the Current Chaos

What is my book about?

Peter Vernezze set out to reread Camus’ classic and apply it to events in real-time. The result, Blogging The Plague: Camus, Covid-19, and the Current Chaos chronicles a crucial four-month stretch when the pandemic transformed from smoldering fire to a full-blown inferno, inflicting death and suffering on a scale not seen in America for more than a century while simultaneously devastating the economy and upending most of life as we know it. Vernezze uses his reading of The Plague as a jumping-off point for Camus-inspired observations on everything from One World at Home to Black Lives Matter, from Neflix’s Pandemic to the conspiracy film Plandemic, from the Coronavirus task force briefings to the Michigan state capitol protests. What emerges is a Camus who not only anticipated the psychology of a pandemic and contemplated its ethical dilemmas but a Camus who can provide soul-sustaining insight absent from the current landscape. This book will change the way you look at the pandemic, at Camus, and at yourself.

A Lifelong Passion

By Sergei Mironenko, Andrei Maylunas,

Book cover of A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra: Their Own Story

An indispensable work to anyone interested in the Romanovs, and especially in the life and reign of Tsar Nicholas II. Here, in their own words from diaries and letters are the thoughts and inner-most feelings of Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, Tsarina Alexandra, as well as numerous royal relatives – though the main focus is on Nicholas and Alexandra. Through these written words, the imperial couple and their families are revealed; they’re given a voice and come alive across more than six hundred pages of text. Interspersed as well are a variety of primary sources such as memoirs, documents, diplomatic letters, and the like. But it is the letters and diaries which take center stage and deliver an emotional read.

Russian historians Maylunas and Mironenko (he was Director of the State Archive of the Russian Federation) have done an admirable job of culling through an enormous amount of material…

Who am I?

Julia P. Gelardi has obtained a Master’s degree in History and spent many years immersed in the world of European royal history. The author of numerous articles and seven books on European royalty, three of which have been published by St. Martin’s Press, Julia has done extensive research in various archives, including the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle. She continues to search the world for elusive books on royalty to add to her library and is always on the lookout for new topics to write about and share with her readers.

I wrote...

From Splendor to Revolution

By Julia P. Gelardi,

Book cover of From Splendor to Revolution

What is my book about?

This sweeping saga recreates the extraordinary opulence and violence of Tsarist Russia as the shadow of revolution fell over the land, and destroyed a way of life for these Imperial women. The early 1850s until the late 1920s marked a turbulent and significant era for Russia. During that time the country underwent a massive transformation, taking it from days of grandeur under the tsars to the chaos of revolution and the beginnings of the Soviet Union.

At the center of all this tumult were four women of the Romanov dynasty. Marie Alexandrovna and Olga Constantinovna were born into the family, Russian Grand Duchesses at birth. Marie Feodorovna and Marie Pavlovna married into the dynasty, the former born a Princess of Denmark, the latter a Duchess of the German duchy of Mecklendburg-Schwerin.

Letters to a Young Poet

By MD Herter Norton, Rainer Maria Rilke,

Book cover of Letters to a Young Poet

There’s nothing in Letters to a Young Poet about craft, writer’s block, or any of the recognizable challenges faced by twenty-first-century writers. Yet this slender volume published more than a century ago speaks to writers everywhere and in every era, who so often work in isolation and, if they are to be true to their art and authentic within themselves, must rip open their souls and spill the contents onto the page without regard for others’ judgment and criticism. In fact, it speaks to anyone, non-writer as well as writer, whose sensitivity and feelings of not belonging make it sometimes feel impossible to express themselves out in the world. In the end, isn’t that what writer’s block is all about. It certainly was for me!

Who am I?

Ask successful authors how they started writing, and many will tell you that they always wanted to write. Not me! In fact, through most of my first 35 years, I resisted engaging with anything even remotely creative. I wouldn’t have called it “writer’s block” back then because, having no conscious desire to be a writer, how I could I be blocked? Yet writer’s block is what it was. That I was ultimately able to recognize it as such and get past it has given me a unique perspective on others’ writing challenges, as well as the skill and compassion to help them free up their innate creative potential.

I wrote...

Writer's Block Unblocked: Seven Surefire Ways to Free Up Your Writing and Creative Flow

By Mark David Gerson,

Book cover of Writer's Block Unblocked: Seven Surefire Ways to Free Up Your Writing and Creative Flow

What is my book about?

You don’t have to experience writer’s block. Ever. You don’t have to sweat over the blank page. You don’t have to chew your pencil (or fingernails) to the nub. You don’t have to wonder where your next word is coming from. With Writer’s Block Unblocked, you’ll never feel stuck again.

Learn how to free your words onto the page more easily than you ever imagined possible! Experience the secret to effortless creative flow that no other book talks about! Banish all stuckness and hesitation! It doesn't matter what you write or how long you've been writing: Writer's Block Unblocked will get you started and keep you going—from first word to final draft. 

The Disappearance

By Geneviève Jurgensen, Adriana Hunter (translator),

Book cover of The Disappearance

Upon receiving the news that her two young daughters had been killed by a drunk driver, Genevieve Jurgensen didn’t think she could go on, let alone ever write about her loss. Fortunately for us, she eventually found a way to tell this story. Through letters to a friend, she draws us in, circling the pain of that terrible day, musing about the mysterious ways in which loss can coexist with a happy, ongoing life. With its raw and intimate feel, the book is a profoundly moving testimony to the complicated process of healing.

Who am I?

I am a member of an unfortunate tribe, the tribe of grieving mothers who write. Upon learning that my newborn son was profoundly brain-damaged, I kept a diary. Writing those pages helped me make sense of his prognosis and figure out how to care for him before he died. Later, my diary helped me write my memoir Holding Silvan: A Brief Life which went on to be named a “Best Book” of the year by both Library Journal and the Boston Globe. Today, I write and work with other writers trying to craft their own stories of loss. Each experience of grief is unique. The five memoirs I’m recommending give voice to a variety of maternal losses — from stillbirth to murder. While each of these memoirs is powerful in its own way, the love in them is universal.

I wrote...

Holding Silvan: A Brief Life

By Monica Wesolowska,

Book cover of Holding Silvan: A Brief Life

What is my book about?

In the opening of Holding Silvan: A Brief Life, Monica Wesolowska gives birth to her first child, a healthy-seeming boy who is taken from her arms for “observation” when he won’t stop crying. Within days, Monica and her husband have been given the grimmest of prognoses for Silvan. They must make a choice about his life.

The story that follows is not of typical maternal heroism. There is no medical miracle here. Instead, we find the strangest of hopes, the hope for as good a death as possible. In clear and unflinching prose, this startling memoir bears witness not only to the joy and pain of a son’s brief life but it raises crucial end-of-life questions for us all.

The Deadly Brotherhood

By John C. McManus,

Book cover of The Deadly Brotherhood: The American Combat Soldier in World War II

The big question for World War II is what kept men fighting in appalling conditions, with high losses against an implacable enemy. McManus focuses on the American army to answer this question, but his answers could apply to many of the fighting men in other armies as well. The book explores the nature of combat and the psychological mechanisms used to cope with the conditions of modern war. This is a dimension of the history that too often gets overlooked as divisions and units are moved around on the historians’ map of the war, yet it is a central issue to understand what motivates soldiers and keeps them fighting effectively. Sadly, a great many did, indeed, end up as psychological casualties.

Who am I?

I am a professional historian who has been writing books for more than forty years. Most of the books have been about war and dictatorship in the first half of the twentieth century. My last book, The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945, developed my long interest in air war history, which goes back to my first major book written in 1980 on air warfare in World War II.

I wrote...

Blood and Ruins: The Great Imperial War 1931-1945

By Richard Overy,

Book cover of Blood and Ruins: The Great Imperial War 1931-1945

What is my book about?

Instead of focusing on the war as a result of the failures of Versailles and the great power contest with Hitler’s Germany, the book argues that the crises of the 1930s and the war were a consequence of the spread of European empire in the last part of the nineteeth century. Japan, beginning in 1931 in Manchuria, Italy in 1935 with Ethiopia and Germany in 1938-9 with Czechoslovakia and Poland, were all trying to build up territorial empires based on race that imitated the empire-building of Britain, France and the other imperial powers. The search for territory to rule imperially sparked the broader crisis that led to war, while the war itself was about bringing Axis imperialism to an end.

After 1945 the other territorial empires rapidly collapsed, bringing to an end 500 years of European expansion and creating a new world of nation states. This is a global story about a war that created our current global order.

Dear Mr. Dickens

By Nancy Churnin, Bethany Stancliffe (illustrator),

Book cover of Dear Mr. Dickens

Some people might not think writing a letter is a tremendously brave act, but it is if you are a young woman who knows in her heart that she needs to challenge a very famous and beloved author – a man even she admires! I had never heard of Eliza Davies and her letters to Charles Dickens and was captivated by the story. Davies wrote to Dickens protesting his stereotypical and harmful depiction of Jewish people in Oliver Twist. And she made a difference! I love how the story teaches kids that they, too, can make a difference and that activism takes many forms, in this case, letter-writing. Added bonus: the book contains quotes from Eliza’s actual letters, which appeals to me immensely as a history geek. 

Who am I?

I am drawn to stories of women who display a fighting spirit, faith in themselves, and the drive to help others. Perhaps this is due to growing up during the women’s rights movement. So many women paved the way for me. Perhaps it was my upbringing. I was raised with six siblings - three brothers and three sisters – and my parents never thought that my sisters and I couldn’t do something just because we were girls. Combine these experiences with the fact that I love history and you can see why I love these stories. Now I get to write and share stories like these with young readers. Lucky me!

I wrote...

Headstrong Hallie!: The Story of Hallie Morse Daggett, the First Female Fire Guard

By Aimee Bissonette, David Hohn (illustrator),

Book cover of Headstrong Hallie!: The Story of Hallie Morse Daggett, the First Female Fire Guard

What is my book about?

Hallie Morse Daggett loved spending time outdoors among the forests in California’s Siskiyou Mountains. She wasn’t afraid of the bears, coyotes, and wildcats. But Hallie was afraid of fire and understood the threat it posed to the forests, wildlife, and people. She wanted to protect her beloved outdoors and decided she would work for the US Forest Service. But in the 1880s the Forest Service didn’t hire women, thinking they couldn’t handle the physical challenges of the work or the isolation. But the Forest Service didn’t know Hallie or how determined she could be.

This picture-book biography tells the story of Hallie Morse Daggett, the first woman “fire guard” hired by the US Forest Service, whose hard work and dedication led the way for other women to join the Forest Service.

Darling Child

By Roger Fulford,

Book cover of Darling Child: Private Correspondence of Queen Victoria and the Crown Princess of Prussia 1871-1878

This is one of a series of books of letters between Queen Victoria and her eldest daughter, which gives a real insight into their characters and the obvious affection they shared. Sometimes gossipy and sometimes describing events of historical significance, it enables the reader to gain ‘inside information’ on numerous well-known characters and to experience the vagaries of life in a royal family. A must-have for any Queen Victoria aficionado! 

Who am I?

All my life, I have had a passion for history and, the moment I came upon Queen Victoria while browsing the history section in the local library, I was hooked! Far from being the dour Widow of Windsor, it was clear that she was a highly-intelligent, forward-thinking, often amusing, and often amused woman, with fascinating relatives and connections across the whole world. Her family life mirrored that of any ordinary family, with its ups and downs, its petty squabbles, and a myriad of contrasting characters, each with a unique and interesting story to tell. With so many avenues yet to explore, this is a passion that could last a lifetime!

I wrote...

Queen Victoria's Granddaughters: 1860-1918

By Christina Croft,

Book cover of Queen Victoria's Granddaughters: 1860-1918

What is my book about?

From a Russian saint, martyred in a mine shaft in Siberia, to the Queens of Norway, Greece, Romania, and Spain, Queen Victoria’s twenty-two granddaughters lived not only through the halcyon days of the European monarchies but also through tragedy and the horrors of war and revolution. Some, like the unassuming Princess Louise of Wales, lived and died in virtual obscurity while others, like the dazzling Queen Marie of Romania and the ill-fated Empress Alexandra of Russia, played a major and memorable role in world events; but, through all the upheavals and conflicts, and, even when wars had divided their nations, one person had bound them together and, to the end of their lives, all would remember ‘dearest grandmama’ – Queen Victoria – with love.

We're in this War, Too

By Judy Barrett Litoff (editor), David C. Smith (editor),

Book cover of We're in this War, Too: World War II Letters from American Women in Uniform

The authors spent ten years researching and acquiring the 30,000 letters that resulted in this collection portraying the wide range of experiences of women in uniform during World War II. I’ve returned to this book often during my research and would recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about the role women played during the war. These eyewitness accounts of the day-to-day lives of ordinary women stepping up to do extraordinary things are compelling and inspirational.

Who am I?

I’ve been devoted to reading memoirs since childhood. My favorite memoirs are based on letters written by people who served in World War II. Their letters encapsulate their experiences with an intimacy meant only for their loved ones. I am fascinated with the immediacy of their personal experience, the longing for home, and the courage to carry on that is expressed in these letters. I continue to be astonished and inspired by the lives of “ordinary” people who tell their own extraordinary stories better than anyone else could. I am the author of two non-fiction books based on letters and my current project is a World War II-era historical novel.

I wrote...

I'll Be Seeing You: Letters Home from a Navy Girl

By Karen Berkey Huntsberger,

Book cover of I'll Be Seeing You: Letters Home from a Navy Girl

What is my book about?

Frustrated with a career she did not like, Lucy Berkey enlisted in the Navy WAVES in 1943. She chronicled her life in letters home for two and a half years. Lucy’s vivid and captivating letters are filled with warmth, humor, and love for family and friends. She details her training, work as a map artist in Washington, DC, travel, and the unique friendships and camaraderie that developed between the women of the WAVES. Lucy’s story of personal and professional transformation, told against the backdrop of World War II, provides insight into what it was like to be a young military woman receiving the same rank and pay as a man for the first time in history.

84, Charing Cross Road

By Helene Hanff,

Book cover of 84, Charing Cross Road

A memoir in letters about a solitary writer in mid-century New York corresponding with the proprietor and staff of a used book shop in London, from whom she orders inexpensive but attractive copies of mostly classics over a period of decades. Even more, it’s a memoir of relationships that develop as a consequence (all through letters; the principals never meet in person). There are so many reasons I love it. For one thing, Helene Hanff collects, rather than accrues. She’s not in it for the First Editions (which doesn’t mean she can’t appreciate decent paper or proper weight or used book smell); she’s in love with the words, and the way they seem to make her feel more like a fellow human being than her interactions with actual people do. There is the natural infusion, over a period of years, of not just incidental details of lives being lived but…

Who am I?

All my life, I’ve been fascinated by interest-driven people and the subcultures they discover or form around themselves. Though my writing ranges from mainstream literary work to music criticism to speculative fiction in many different flavors, I’m best known for what one longtime reader referred to as my “oddly personable brand of horror.” Call them people-and-their-ghosts stories. I’ve written six novels and four collections, which have earned me the Shirley Jackson and International Horror Guild Awards, among other honors. I’ve also taught writing at the graduate, university, and secondary level for more than 25 years.

I wrote...

Infinity Dreams

By Glen Hirshberg,

Book cover of Infinity Dreams

What is my book about?

In my most recent book, a novel-in-stories called Infinity Dreams, two insatiably curious, instinctively solitary people, Nadine and Normal (aka the Collector), sustain a decades-long romance neither of them expected largely through a shared love of prowling the more arcane corners of the collecting universe. Far from antique shops or garage sales or flea markets, they help (or sometimes thwart) people who collect everything from maps of places that may not exist to lost tastes. They also keep bumping up against an elusive and increasingly dangerous sense of something fraying at the edges of what we insist on calling reality. And they keep rediscovering each other.

Here are five more books I love about obsessive people pursuing their interests and incidentally discovering possible bridges back toward others.

Last Letters Home

By Tamasin Day-Lewis,

Book cover of Last Letters Home

This book is more about the impact of war on the families of those who never returned from it. There isn’t a lot of combat content, but some of the letters are extremely moving. On the other hand, the title of the book is misleading, since some letters are indeed "last letters home," but they are in fact the last ones written before the soldier went home... In any case, although this book focuses exclusively on the British troops, it allows us to enter the intimacy of families torn apart by the war with great emotion.

Who am I?

I'm a Frenchman with a great interest in the history of the Second World War, specializing in the correspondence of Allied soldiers. Almost 20 years of collecting WWII letters led to the publication of my first book Till Victory which was an award-winning bestseller in France, before it was released in English worldwide in 2021. I also host a podcast (Till Victory: a podcast about WWII and Peace), where I interview British and American veterans, and have made documentaries such as Red Beret & Dark Chocolate or The Missing Highlander. It's all about trying to understand what the young men who fought and died to liberate my country went through when they were my age.

I wrote...

Till Victory: The Second World War By Those Who Were There

By Clément Horvath,

Book cover of Till Victory: The Second World War By Those Who Were There

What is my book about?

From the mountains of Italy to the beaches of Normandy, and from the deserts of North Africa to the ruined cities of Germany, experience the history of the Second World War in Western Europe from 1939-1945 in an entirely different way. Using their wartime letters and diaries, follow the journeys of more than a hundred Allied soldiers (American, British, French, Canadian…) as they liberate the old continent from Nazi rule, sometimes at the cost of their own lives. Arranged in chronological order and placed in historical context, their stories and letters are illustrated with many personal photographs, WWII memorabilia and original uniforms.

Winner of the 2022 Army Historical Foundation Distinguished Writing Awards (National Museum of the US Army).

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