Our Reading Lives

Bookish Love Notes: Connecting Via Snail Mail in the Age of COVID-19

Laura Sackton

Senior Contributor

Laura Sackton is a queer book nerd and freelance writer, known on the internet for loving winter, despising summer, and going overboard with extravagant baking projects. In addition to her work at Book Riot, she reviews for BookPage and AudioFile, and writes a weekly newsletter, Books & Bakes, celebrating queer lit and tasty treats. You can catch her on Instagram shouting about the queer books she loves and sharing photos of the walks she takes in the hills of Western Mass (while listening to audiobooks, of course).

Last spring, during the first few weeks of the pandemic, I started sending postcards to everyone I knew. I was living alone, and suddenly I wasn’t going to the coffee shop, the library, the bookstore — places where I’d previously had casual human interactions I didn’t realize I needed until I missed them. Postcards felt like the far-away version of going to the coffee shop. It was a grounding practice. It only took a few moments. I wrote a few lines, I recommended a book. I sent them off to family, friends, a few people I only knew from the internet.

I wrote a postcard every day for three weeks or so. I made a list of upcoming books, books that would be released during the pandemic, hence no author tours, bookstore events, etc. I encouraged friends to preorder them if they could, told them why I was excited about that particular book, what previous books by the same author I’d loved. This, also, mirrored the casual-but-crucial human interactions I missed: telling the bookseller at the indie on my little island what book I’d recently loved, scribbling down a recommendation from someone sitting next to me at the cafe who’d also loved whatever book was sitting on my table.

The weeks went on. The pandemic didn’t go away. I moved, started a new job, got busy again. I stopped writing postcards. Then this fall, still searching for ways to connect across distance, I fell in love with writing letters again. I’ve always loved writing and receiving letters, though it hasn’t been a regular practice in my life until now. Inspired by an issue of fellow Rioter Patricia’s newsletter all about snail mail, I treated myself to some stationery from Yoseka Stationery (thanks to the recommendation of another Rioter!), a shop with which I am now obsessed. I started writing postcards again. I set aside some time every Sunday for attending to my correspondence. (I will never get tired of saying this.) Writing letters is a treat, a solace, an indulgence. It slows me down and makes me feel connected to people I love.

Fast forward to January. I was doing my annual goal-setting, which for me is just an excuse to get creative and think about what I want in the coming year: what habits I want to cultivate, what joys I want to build into my weeks. Two things kept coming up: books and snail mail. (Are you shocked?) I was already writing letters regularly, and obviously I’m always reading. But I wanted something concrete. I wanted a project. I wanted to find a way to combine my love of books and snail mail into a practice that would bring me — and others — joy.

What I came up with is a yearlong goal: to send mini book reviews, via snail mail, to friends, family, and acquaintances, far and wide. My plan is to send out 52 reviews, one per week. There are no other parameters. I can recommend books I’m reading right now, or a book I read five years ago I think someone might like. I made a sweet little graphic in my planner about it, because I am the kind of person who likes to record my progress.

I even bought myself a cute book stamp and a special writing pad. The paper is small — these aren’t long, in-depth reviews — the perfect size for a short note. The stamp has blank lines where I can write in the title of the book. And while these accessories are a delight, they certainly aren’t necessary. Like postcards, writing these notes isn’t a massive undertaking. All it takes is some paper, some stamps, and some people you know who like to read.

What started as a fun little project has become one of my favorite things about 2021. I find myself thinking about my mini reviews as I read. Who do I know who would love this book? I get excited when I read a book I know a friend would absolutely adore. I’ve also started thinking about my relationships in different ways — or maybe I’m just thinking more about the people in my life who I haven’t seen in ages thanks to the pandemic. A friend recently had surgery and I immediately thought, “okay, what kind of book would they like to read during their recovery?” and then sent off a review. A few weeks ago I read an amazing book about disability justice, which made me remember a conversation I had with a coworker last summer about disability activism. So I sent her off a review, thinking she’d really enjoy that book.

The mini reviews I send aren’t polished or complicated. It’s just a few lines, an “I’m thinking of you” but in book language. I write about what I loved in the book and what I think they’ll love. It’s a small practice. It doesn’t take long. But it has profoundly changed my reading life and my social life. It’s a way to make a solitary activity — reading — feel social. It’s a way to connect with friends who live far away, since travel is right out.

Yes, there are other ways to connect — texting and calling and Zoom — but sometimes I get sick of screens. I’ve always hated long phone catch-ups, the pressure to explain everything about my life in a short period. It exhausts me. These little book notes are a way to remind someone I’m thinking of them without all that pressure. I recently got a text from a friend saying: “OMG THANK YOU. This is exactly what I need in my life right now. How did you know?!” We had a short, lovely exchange. It felt like the kind of ordinary interaction I miss so much. Sending letters can’t replace the daily in-person chats with friends and strangers I used to take for granted. But it fills a similar place in my heart. It makes me feel like part of the world again.

One thing I love about snail mail is that, for me, it’s simply a gift, freely given. I love it when I get a letter back. I love it when someone texts me to say they got my mini review in the mail, and they just put the book on hold at their library (I got one of these texts from my cousin this week). But I never expect a reply. The act of writing the note is its own gift, and it always gives me something back, whether it’s the joy of sealing the envelope and putting it in the mailbox, or a conversation with an old friend. I’ve got 46 more mini reviews to send out this year, and I can’t wait to see where they’ll lead me, what connections and reconnections and unexpected joys and moments of friendship they’ll open up in my life.