Getty-Peter Macdiarmid

[Getty Images-Peter Macdiarmid.]

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

 “Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”

Billy Collins, “Marginalia,” Sailing Alone Around the Room

Seaman's copy of Monson's Letter

[An advance copy. Photo by Donna Seaman.]

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.

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).

Ander Monson

[Ander Monson.]

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 Tankard9

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.

Reading Lesson by Sandra Kuck

[“Reading Lesson” by Sandra Kuck.]





  • Hi, Lanie and Richard. I am quite interested in your post, as often when a book’s filled with scribbled-in comments, I have totally lost track of the argument of the book in an agreement or quarrel with the notator. I’m not sure if I told you or not about my adventure with the “notator” in my copy of “Recognitions,” but I was much interested to read them, and classed them as either perceptive or jejune, until at last when I was reading yet another of them, I finally recognized my own hand! I’d read the book before, and ridiculously retained no memory of it. And it’s quite a long and complex book. At last I decided to give myself the benefit of the doubt because I could tell by the way I made my “a’s” that I must’ve read it when I was much younger. To youth, we must forgive much (as with those young readers who scribble “how true! how true!” in the sides of our classics).

    • Richard says:

      Ha! How true, how true! Indeed. You know, I often mark and scribble – usually for teaching purposes – but don’t like others’ annotations. Of course, however, what a brilliant idea of Monson’s to go after them.

  • LanieTankard says:

    Thought-provoking thoughts! I find marginalia a bit jarring when I’ve been reading steadily along on the same wavelength picking up an author’s voice, even when I disagree with what the author is saying, and then suddenly am sidetracked by some interloper jumping in and interrupting with comments and scribblings in the margins. I do, however, adore marginalia in vintage books and find such writing absolutely charming there. A few years ago, I saw a fascinating exhibit of pre-Gutenberg marginalia penned in hand-lettered volumes on display at the University of Chicago Library’s Special Collections Research Center. Who knew those monks had that kind of time on their hands??!

  • cynthia says:

    I can’t read without a pen or pencil so I’m looking forward to reading this book that I had not heard of before this post. Thanks so much!

  • LanieTankard says:

    Cynthia, you’ll absolutely love pages 129–130 then. Monson calls them a “Reader Response Kit,” totally blank pages in the midst of his essays where readers can write whatever’s on their minds! His whole book, however, is about so much more than just marginalia. Thanks for your comment! I hope you return to post your reaction after you’ve read the book. I’m sure Richard would enjoy continuing the literary conversation.

  • Annette Boose says:

    Elisha and I love to find little treasures left behind by the previous owners of a book as mostly we shop at antique shops and The Half Price bookstore. Once we found a letter in an envelope all yellowed and aged. Now I am going to have to dig it out and read it again. Andrew and I own several field guides where the previous owners have drawn sketches in the margins and made notes about the birds they have seen. Of course we do the same with our own field guides so later when we have a disagreement about the weather or where we saw a certain bird we can look it up. Thanks for posting. I will have to pick up this book.

  • LanieTankard says:

    Wonderful finds, Annette, especially an entire old letter! Could be the basis for a novel right there in that missive. Was there an address on the envelope? As for field guides to birds, they certainly seem like logical spots to make notes in the margins. May ephemera continue to befall you!

  • […] own writing includes fiction, poetry, and essays: The Available World, Letter to a Future Lover, Neck Deep and Other Predicaments, Other Electricities, Vacationland, and Vanishing […]

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