Recently my wife was given an old book checkout card from her school library. When she was about ten years old, she had borrowed The Brothers Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty. There was her name, written on the card in a determined, swirly cursive. Now here it was, decades later – a link to her younger self when she was a girl into fairy tales. It was a “blast from the past”, you might say.
These types of found items are the inspiration for Ander Monson’s essay collection (originally published on 6” x9” cards) Letter to a Future Lover: Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found in Libraries. Whether it be a personal letter left in an old book, notes written in the margins of a friend’s collection of poetry, messages in a yearbook, a defaced text, or even the writing on a packet of seeds from a seed library, it doesn’t take much to get Monson writing. Even safety instruction cards from the back pockets of airplane seats can set him off for a couple of pages (in fact, he confesses to having stolen dozens of such cards for his collection in the past). For Monson, any collection of writing can be considered a library.
Through these essays, it’s clear that the written word is Monson’s way of making sense of the world. For him, words provide an anchor to the present as well as offering a way to communicate with the past and future. About books, he writes “if there’s something in the artifact that connects to us and what is written there, then they’re not / we’re not just ghosts in shells, waiting to shed ourselves and become something else.0”
In the title essay (one of two titled “Letter to a Future Lover”), he ponders a letter found stuffed in a thrift shop book. The letter, written by a woman to her past lover, is heartfelt and bare in its emotion. Monson wonders if the correspondence was ever sent and muses on the nature of time and how letter writing can be transformative for the sender, as well as the receiver. And, importantly, how such writing can affect the person who finds it, who has then become an unintended receiver. In another essay he writes on the same theme: “And if our minds find another’s in passing, a stranger’s a decade or a century along, well, maybe that’s enough: a way to leave a trace of us, who we were or wanted to be, what we read and could imagine, what we did and what we left for you.”
Monson gets particularly obsessed with “the defacer” – a man who wrote offensive diatribes in multiple books in the library of the University of Arizona (where Monson teaches). In a series of essays, he attempts to explore the defacer’s motivations and psyche, but he remains a mystery. He writes, “I am trying to imagine you, Defacer, but you remain a cipher. The police can’t locate your incident report. So you remain unnamed, unfaced, unplaced, unbound, except in books not your own.” One is left with the impression that Monson is trying to find too much meaning in the defacer’s words and assign a purpose that may not be there in the five essays about him. It’s the only part of the book that may have benefitted from a less is more approach.
Monson has said that he doesn’t enjoy reading electronic texts very much, but Letter to a Future Lover is more than merely a fetishization of the tangible in our digital age. Monson is trying to find meanings and connections between these physical objects (books themselves or the marginalia, errata, inscriptions and ephemera found in books) and how they define us: “Everything we’ve written, what we’ve read, what we’ve collected, what we’ve bookmarked on what pages, what notes we left herein, what we have included, discarded, defaced, lost and replaced, how it’s filed and organized: it’s all a carrier, a vector, an edifice of us”.