Ander Monson’s library ephemera spur provocative literary essays.
Letter to a Future Lover: Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found in Libraries by Ander Monson. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, $22.00 hardcover (176 pages).
Guest Review by Lanie Tankard
Ander Monson has written a book that’s still got me contemplating. He’s an intriguing thinker and he displays his pondering prowess to good effect in his latest work, Letters to a Future Lover: Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found in Libraries.
“Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”
In this collection of literary essays, Monson frames books as repositories of both past and future history—not via their printed content but rather through the traces of former readers and librarians left within when they interacted with the volumes. Much like an excited archaeologist embarking on a dig, Monson gleefully examines even the most minute scribblings and materials deposited by past lovers of the books he encounters in various libraries.
As he inspects, he uses each occasion as a springboard for his thoughts—one minute he’s deep into a soliloquy about a note he found written in a book margin and before you know it, he’s segued almost imperceptibly into human loss of a heartbreaking magnitude. Monson fuses Vladimir Nabokov, Walter Benjamin, Italo Calvino, Virginia Woolf, or Julio Cortázar into his musings with the same ease as he brings in gaming consoles such as Atari Jaguar, TI–99/4A, or Vectrex Arcade System.
The novel People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks was based on a true story involving age-old smidgens left behind in an ancient volume, but Letter to a Future Lover is not fiction. Monson weaves in his own memories throughout to form a unique style of meandering memoir that embellishes the main recurring theme of reader/book interface. During his reminiscences, he digresses on various tangents such as the difference between actual memories (perhaps residing in the coffee rings and chipped wood on that old table in your grandmother’s attic) contrasted with artificial memories (such as those created in a factory on a “distressed” table sold in an upscale home-furnishings store).Monson has also written a novel (Other Electricities), two books of poetry (Vacationland and The Available World), and two other collections of essays (Neck Deep and Other Predicaments and Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir). I reviewed Vanishing Point, a finalist for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism, for the 100 Memoirs blog.
I suppose you could read Letter to a Future Lover quickly, but I don’t recommend that approach. I like to savor ideas myself. And leaving no stone unturned, Monson delves into such topics as libraries, reading, sentences, pixels, codex, myth, tweets, writing, cataloguing, stamp and coin collections, structure, Words with Friends, and archives—wrapping them in classy metaphors brimming at times with such brilliance they forced me to pause and allow the notions he tossed out to play around for a while in my mind. I chuckled while Monson went to town with literary devices like synecdoche and metonymy.
Do you read with pen in hand, making marginal notes as if talking to the author? Are you fervently attracted to every single little facet of books as a concept? Have you ever been curious about palimpsest? If you enter a library archive with the same awe you reserve for Notre Dame Cathedral Paris…then oh my, will Ander Monson’s Letter to a Future Lover reel you in.
The slim volume certainly has me sitting here deliberating how a future book lover a thousand years hence might view my egg salad stains.
Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.