IT’S OBVIOUS THAT Ander Monson loves libraries. He’s traveled to the library of the failed self-contained ecosystem Biosphere 2, the library of the Museum of Genocide Victims in Lithuania (formerly called the KGB Museum), the Seed Library of Pima County, and Kansas State University’s special collection on cookbooks.
But Monson is no Nicholson Baker–style preservationist out to save stack upon stack of yellowing newsprint. He’s interested in what libraries can and can’t do: how they can and can’t preserve and protect their contents.
His latest book, Letter to a Future Lover, collects 78 essays that he wrote and secreted into books and libraries around the world. Mostly a page or two in length, the essays are variously addressed to fellow authors (such as Albert Goldbarth, Alison Hawthorne Deming, and Maggie Nelson), to defacers of library books, to the inhabitants of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and even to the reader of the collection, who is at one point offered a specific essay to use as kindling — “Burn This First / Unison Device” — in case of extreme emergency.
What’s seductive about the structure of Letter to a Future Lover is how it challenges the physical form of the book and the way we tend to take it for granted. The essays are arranged alphabetically, Monson notes, merely for convenience. In “AI,” the book’s second essay (which also mentions the “ai” or Brazilian maned sloth), he instructs the reader:
Read the essays in whichever way you like. Be slothful and go straight through, claws extended, or stay still and hope the world will come to you. I’d start with “How to Read a Book,” myself, if I didn’t already know how to navigate these things. Use it as you would any of its class. Adjust it like a sextant. Let it open up a seam in you like Anne Sexton. Discard — or not — when finished, like a former lover’s breath, like a pdf.
These kinds of instructions and permissions pop up throughout the collection; Monson gives his assent to reading the book out of order, to writing in the book (in generously provided blank spaces), to vandalizing the book, and (as mentioned) to lighting parts of the book on fire. (Though this hardback is a relatively stable physical object — assuming it isn’t torn apart or set alight — Monson used the crowd-funding site Kickstarter to create two limited editions, in which the essays are boxed and unbound so that readers can read and assemble them in any order they like.)
Throughout his career, Monson has remained difficult to categorize. He’s published poetry, fiction, and essays — though most of his writings live very comfortably in their respective borderlands. His second essay collection, Vanishing Point, had the tongue-in-cheek subtitle: “Not a Memoir,” and included two separate meditations on the world’s largest ball of paint, located in Alexandria, Indiana.
But Monson isn’t simply determined to poke his finger in the eye of “the establishment” — whoever, whatever that is. His subversions aren’t to shame the proud or cut down the wicked; rather, these essays allow the author and his readers to toss off the rules and just play. Monson means to give us respite from the rigid categories and constraints we abide by — and even invest in most of the time.
He’s provocative in this way, and also very funny, as in the essay “Dear Future Lover, Dear Lament”:
I am no sentimentalist. I am no survivalist, but I’d like to survive. I have been an onanist on occasion. Though unlike the Onan of Genesis I have not had sex with my sister-in-law after my brother’s death so as to procreate and fulfill the commandment of my god. I hope it doesn’t come to that.
Or in “Dear Sepulcher, Dear Bless Your Heart”:
I have things to say about Alabamians, though I can’t count myself among them, having only lived there for four years. Mostly I remember people saying bless your heart to me, only realizing a year later (another dictionary echo, that lag in understanding) that this was not meant as a compliment but as a blessing, offered on the heart of the deranged, profane, foolish, strange, disabled, or touched, so as to prevent damnation and confer protection. When spoken, some words confer protection: these are spells. Learn to spell them well and mind what they say of you.
Actually, the butt of Monson’s jokes is often Monson himself; but that self-deprecating streak doesn’t conceal the writer who knows the workings of language as intimately as a cleric knows his holy books. In fact, there’s something of the sacred in Monson’s prose. There’s plenty of the profane, too, of course, from tech jargon to names of Dungeons & Dragons monsters to paeans to Doritos, but Monson knows the cadences and rhythms and syntax that transform the day-to-day into the divine.
Toward the end of “Dear Future Lover, Dear Lament,” Monson lists the pantheon of deities he prays to:
the gods of order, the gods of collection, of cataloging and cross-referencing, the gods of three stars aligning in an essay, the gods of open skies and those who count and sort the clouds, the snow, or other weather, the gods of preservation, the sentence gods and those who sentence us to keep composing under penalty of irrelevance or despair, and to those who watch over books, these brittle things that contain our best attempts.
But the prayer, of course, is the list. And for a reader like me, who spent every Sunday morning of his youth at Mass, that rhythm and cadence is unmistakable. In piece after piece, Monson uses litany and repetition to elevate the prose, as when he transforms the words of the backhanded bless your heart from pity into prayer — he may be “foolish,” “strange,” or “touched,” but he also knows that the music of language can turn even insults holy.
In Monson’s essays, a single word can conjure a dozen others, as when the magic “spell” recalls its homophone and turns into the “spelling” of words or when “expansive” leads to “expensive,” and the prose tacks in a totally new direction. At the beginning of “In Hennepin” Monson describes various classifications of sin: “felony or misdemeanor, minor, major, venal, incidental, mortal, thoughtful, supersexy, supermax.” This is where he is at his slippery best. He manages to defy categories without disrespecting them. And in doing so, he pulls off a difficult feat — he is reverent and irreverent at the same time.
Letter to a Future Lover concludes with an essay titled “Z,” a meditation on the ways we organize and catalog and ultimately become the information we’ve accrued throughout our lives:
Everything we’ve written, what we’ve read, what we’ve collected, what we’ve bookmarked on what pages, what notes we left pressed herein, what we have included, discarded, defaced, lost and then replaced, how it’s filed and organized: it’s all a carrier, a vector, an edifice of us.
It’s a fitting ending; for the book is not only a collection of essays but also a vessel for the essayist, not to mention for the reader whose prints rest on the cover, whose stray hair perhaps nestles between pages.
But wait: that’s my book’s ending — the book I dutifully read front-to-back, without skipping or skimming or lighting the thing on fire.
A more adventurous reader might end with “See You Next Week,” an essay about the joys of perusing a friend’s bookshelves:
What are your sins? What are mine? Our breaking points? Do we share them? Might they share a page in this book, this space, your shelf, your self, both of ours, these hours we carve out to spend with others’ words, those netherworld?
And another might finish with “Nothing to Do but Atomize,” in which Monson considers how we see ourselves in mirrors, and how we see ourselves in books:
In this then you might see yourself if positioned properly. If not of books, if not of boxes, if not of libraries or echoes, if not of lines of text paper-chained together, then of what are we composed?
So “Z” isn’t the end. It’s one end. Or it’s a start. Every essay in Letter to a Future Lover is both a beginning and an end, an introduction and a conclusion. Every essay is a trial, a chance to engage with the world in a new way.
According to one of them, “Mirror Work,” the US Navy’s Project ELF allowed messages to be sent to submerged nuclear submarines halfway across world, but it took 15 minutes just to transmit a three-letter code. At that rate, Monson calculates, a tweet would take 12 hours, and a long story would take an entire year.
“It takes awhile to get a message through,” he writes. “I won’t stop trying.”
If Letter to a Future Lover is any indication, his messages are worth waiting for.