Nina Sankovitch’s book about letter writing

Books to Read

Signed, Sealed, Delivered by Nina Sankovitch

When Nina Sankovitch and her husband went house hunting “years ago,” they find a run-down house on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, built in 1888, but unoccupied for the past15 years. The house includes some old, dusty furniture, rotting floors and obsolete plumbing and electrical systems, but somehow, it is just right for them. Despite escalating real estate values, their offer is accepted, despite better offers that come in after their bid.

Thus begins the saga of Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing (not to be confused with the somewhat quirky series on the Hallmark channel about a mythical Dead Letter Office), by Nina Sankovitch (Simon & Schuster, 2014). As they start to restore this odd, tall, narrow house, some of its history unfolds, especially when Nina becomes privy to a trunk full of memorabilia, including a trove of 100 year-old letters that reveal the lives of a prestigious merchant, banking and manufacturing family, including James Seligman, who writes such charming letters home to his family from college that Nina finds herself intrigued by this son from long ago, just as her own son heads off to college.

The letters become a jumping off point for revealing the stories of many famous and not so famous people through their letters.These profiles and excerpts are interwoven with Sankovitch’s own stories, as well as her thoughts on love, loss, family and the enduring value and power of the written word.

The book includes love letters written through the centuries, including those of Abelard and Heloise, whose doomed love affair tragically unfolded in medieval times, and the letters written by acclaimed writer J.D. Salinger to 18-year old Joyce Maynard, a form of wooing that he was to repeat with others when their relationship was over. Sankovitch also includes letters of condolence, such as those received by Abraham Lincoln and Charles Lindberg, on the terrible losses of their beloved children, one through illness, the other through kidnapping and murder. And she writes of friendship, including the deep affection expressed through letters between Samuel Steward and Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, spanning some 34 years.

While Sankovitch borrows from the letters and stories of friends, family and neighbors, as well, this is a deeply personal book, sentimental but never maudlin. Publishers Weekly refers to Signed, Sealed, Delivered as “perfect for devotes of pen and paper.” For anyone who likes to write and receive letters, this book is a joy to read. Available through libraries and your local independent book store.

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