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Ander Monson's 'Letter to a Future Lover' and the lives of books

David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times Book Critic
Ander Monson's 'Letter to a Future Lover' and our interaction with books: @DavidUlin reviews

Ander Monson favors the word "labyrinth." It appears throughout "Letter to a Future Lover," which frames its own sort of labyrinth, one defined not so much by the author's readings as by his physical engagement with books.

The project had its genesis as a series of actual letters written in reaction to the detritus (hair, notes) found in library books, and published, to use Monson's word, "back into the space (typically the book or library) that started it." This means that "Letter to a Future Lover" is a call and response, a collection of essays that began as secret notes.

"Years after I left," he writes, "I found two books from my college library in my collection, unadorned with due date stamp or card. I returned them with a note. I thought that librarians must live for notes like this, folded humble mea culpas, signed or not, from years before, light from distant stars."

In many ways, this is a counterpoint to Monson's last book, "Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir," a National Book Critics Circle finalist. A series of personal essays that deconstruct our understanding of the personal, it blurred the line between print and digital, accompanied as it was by a website on which the essays were regularly updated and enlarged.

For this new work, Monson has turned back to the bittersweet satisfactions of the physical, the way fixed things offer unexpected insights into who we are. Call it memory, or correspondence; either way, Monson insists, "This interaction is exactly what I'm seeking: knowing someone was just reading this, that this book has history. That it falls open to a chapter on signal-to-noise ratio suggests the binding's broken in this exact way, that this page is the one the body slept on after its too long late-night engagement, or that the diagram on using 'compression to decrease noise' gave someone pause to think or scan or photograph."

What he's referring to are traces, not of the book per se but of the reader. This in turn indicates the nature of his labyrinth — a web built of the inadvertent scribbles, the imprints and impressions, by which we mark our place.

In that sense, "Notes to a Future Lover" is a book about loss — not nostalgia so much as longing, wistfulness. "A library," Monson writes, "is a synonym for slow, a silent coil into the past's dust."

This is true even when the library is inaccessible to us, or to language, as in the empty shelves at the now-abandoned Biosphere 2 (once "a library of plants, micro-organisms, atmosphere, animals, insects, gases, and eight humans") or the Pima County Public Library's Seed Library in Tucson, where patrons can "withdraw" up to six seeds of an heirloom plant strain and "return" them after successful harvesting. In this account, Monson effectively breaks through his boundaries, from the world of ideas into that of things. "The collection here," he explains, "is a hedge against the future, genetic modification, the flattening of biodiversity into a thin, controllable, corporate, patented line."

Something similar might be said of more traditional, book-based libraries — although the catch is that they can't help but become hybridized by the effects of all those hands, those readers, fingering all those pages, leaving pieces of themselves behind. "If I held the library sacrosanct," Monson acknowledges, "I wouldn't touch it, use it, brush my hands along the page, slowly eroding or decomposing it. To use a book is to destroy it."

This is the tension at the heart of "Letter to a Future Lover": We consider these artifacts precious because of the connection they offer between us and others who have touched them — and yet, it is precisely this touching that will eat them away.

Not every interaction Monson traces is positive or connective; several of these short essays (nearly all come in at two pages) focus on a figure known as the Defacer, who marked up more than 300 volumes in the University of Arizona library with anti-gay rhetoric. (He was never caught.)

"Letter to a Future Lover" reproduces some of this offensive marginalia, by turns welcoming it, "since it starts to arc, suggest your story, growing worry about gender, sex," and condemning it, not only for its politics, but also for its hectoring, anti-conversational tone. It's an interesting conundrum, since by his own admission Monson too is something of a defacer, but his discomfort with the Defacer's vandalism causes him to back away.

More effective is another, more elusive set of connections, between the way Monson interacts with other books and how we interact with his. More than once, he presents blank spaces (in one case, filling an entire two-page essay slot), urging us to "[w]rite in this book. Use this page. … Play this like a game." The implication is that by reading, we begin to inhabit, and participate in, the process he's describing, which creates an unexpected transference.

That's a point Monson makes explicit late in "Letter to a Future Lover. "How do you read?" he wonders, addressing us directly, admitting his process is far from orderly but rather moves "from book to book, stack to stack, thought to thought, labyrinth to labyrinth." The choice of metaphor suggests we are always searching, always looking to connect, "[t]o tread on emptiness. To leave a mark. To know it will be erased by snow."

This is what Monson is writing against, this dissolution, even as he recognizes its inevitability. In that regard, "Letter to a Future Lover" becomes an invocation from the present to a distant set of readers, the "future lovers" of its title, reminding them, above all else, that we were here.

david.ulin@latimes.com

Letter to a Future Lover
Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found in Libraries

Ander Monson
Graywolf: 166 pp., $22

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