Had you heard today’s word of the day before now? I don’t mean to patronize you. It’s just that I never expected to uncork a five-syllable wonder so early in this list, if at all. 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.
The word itself (e-pist-o-larry) has Biblical roots and comes from a noun, epistle. Epistles were the letters written by the apostles, and in a broader sense they are any long-form composition for a specific audience. The most famous epistles were written by Paul (née Saul) of New Testament fame.
There’s something compelling about a letter. They have a certain quality, a tone, unique to that format. When a letter has a single addressee, its message is electric and its presence immediate, even a note from a concerned neighbor:
Dear 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:
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,