Letter to a Future Lover by Ander Monson
Ander Monson is a kindred spirit, a fellow traveler, a journeyman as committed to the quiet life of literary enrichment as you yourself may be. Placing your hands in his margins transports you into the best of company and connects you with a writer aware of the deeper motivations behind why we read, and how that ritual might inform who we are and how we grew to become that person. Monson, curiously, has us as his readers but wants to connect with us as peers, acquaintances. He understands the intimacy between a reader and writer, and, minds bared, sees us as lovers of a certain sort.
Monson keenly observes that we change who we are as readers throughout time. A freshmen literature major, for instance, will have a wildly different experience reading a classic as a late teenager than he will as a father, a generation later. But, could those two timelines converge and converse? Could they maybe learn something from one another? In Letter to a Future Lover, Monson investigates this possibility. He rummages through stacks of wayward libraries for potent marginalia, and in a series of short essays attempts to record these ephemeral communications, to pull from the ether a connectivity that might make the life of reading a little less lonesome.
Structurally, Monson’s essays each launch with an image, some scanned marginalia, inscription, or folded-in message. These essays (each running no longer than a page and a half) often begin with a direct discussion of the highlighted material, but spin out into a broader meditation on books and libraries. Monson’s essays are dizzyingly good, inspiring in their message and astonishing in their format. As Monson explains in the collection’s back matter:
“When possible, each of these essays was originally published (on a 6” x 9” card) back into the space (typically the book or library) that started it… Though they are bound here, no meaning is intended by their ordering. They are simply ordered alphabetically.”
An essay called “Dear Defacer” ruminates on some slanderous graffiti scrawled through the pages of an text on Greta Garbo in Gay & Lesbian Biography; Monson remarks at how these slurs have now grown far beyond their original intentions by being read generations later. He is embarrassed by Defacer, but writes “Still, I want to know your name, what makes you play this strange.” In an essay called “Dear Albert, Dear Alison,” he marvels at the atemporal glory of reading an annotated book:
“To read another writer’s marked-up copy of a book is to read two books at once, text and paratext, the passage and the pilgrim’s progress, to see how an animal takes root and begins to worm inside a brain, even if we don’t get to see its final bloom. There’s no end to the ways that this can shell, reading an essay responding to an essay responding to marginalia on another’s essay terminating in a corner of an M.C. Escher drawing, not one of the famous ones.”
Monson writes with rhapsodic prose, full of wit and heart and kindness. He’s playful, too, balancing with finesse these important monologues on life and reading with lowbrow cultural touchstones like video games and junk food. “Let these adventures grow in each of us,” he writes. “The labyrinths that we wander through in games, in dungeon-exploration games, in first-person shooter games, in mobile phone geocaching games: how different are they from our experience in text? When we drop down into a sentence, first-person-like, how a needle POVs a record groove, and sees only the walls of what’s on either side, parallel lines of peripheral sentences, not immediately related but separated by punctuation or a half-apparent phrase — when we get so deep into its interior that nothing exists outside it, when we abandon ourselves to its syntactic turns, its lines of preserved thought: every day we should be so lost.”
“Treating a library as a crematorium for yesterday’s knowledge does no one any good,” Monson writes in an essay called “Bind in Everything”. “This place breathes, expands, contracts with cold and breath, the infusion of new words.” A library could be a beacon for the future, a hub of lost communication or communication that’s yet to happen, a place of lonely, potent ideas bouncing around like numbers stations from book to book and reader to reader. Books should not be present-day distractions but waypoints to the future, bound invitations to learn and grow and reflect. Letter to A Future Lover is exactly the kind of book Monson yearns to be archived in our collective library, the book we need to shine the way. It is a masterpiece and one that every passionate reader should experience.